Project Exploration Finds Connections Through STEM PUSH Network

When Natasha Smith Walker first met Hakeem, she shook her head and thought to herself, “That boy looks very young and is really mischievous.”

Hakeem was running back and forth throughout the new West Side STEM Learning Center that Project Exploration had just opened to serve an often-forgotten and neglected area of Chicago. The building was intended to offer STEM programming and maker spaces in a neighborhood setting where entire families could come for enrichment and engagement. 

It was a big lift for Project Exploration and as Smith Walker saw the staff chase Hakkem back and forth through the hallways, she started wondering if she and her team had taken on too much. Was the new project more than they could handle?

“I thought to myself, ‘maybe this is not our line of work; maybe we need to scrap this?’” she said.

Three hard months later, a significant amount of research in early childhood STEM education, hiring a new instructor and building ecosystem partners, Smith Walker walked into the recently developed early childhood room and noticed that Hakeem was there and engaged. She said “hello” to him and he looked at her and said, “‘don’t bother me. Don’t you see I am a scientist!” Hakeem had created a STEM identity!

Smith Walker said this was the moment when she knew the work they had laid over the past three years was working. 


“This spoke volumes,” she said. “We had figured out a way to take a naturally curious kindergartener and spark his interest in STEM.”

The new building and expansion was a big initiative for Project Exploration, a 22-year-old Chicago-based initiative creating STEM opportunities for women, girls and young people of color.

“As young people of color and women, you need a village of support around you,” Smith Walker said.

The STEM PUSH Network has become part of the village for Project Exploration and its work as a provider of programming. 

Through its affiliation with the STEM PUSH Network, Smith Walker said she and other Project Exploration staff have been able to connect with other providers, even in Chicago, and that they all learn from one another.

“Part of the value of the STEM PUSH Network is to sit at the table with partners and take that dedicated time to think about what are the connections that are important and necessary,” she said.

Smith Walker said the STEM PUSH Network association has also inspired Project Exploration to develop a vision of how to connect students to post-secondary options. “The Network is helping us think through the intentionality of getting students into the next step in their STEM journey,” she said.

Smith Walker said she has learned from other STEM programs, affiliated with the STEM PUSH Network, about the importance of a system that will help students grow, learn and graduate with a STEM degree.

Smith Walker said no single program can handle it all and that there need to be ways of doing “soft hand-offs” from program to program to ensure that students stay connected to STEM. She said so many of her students need this type of support and literal hand-holding.

She shared another experience that she and one of her staff members had with a sixth grader who experienced a significant amount of violence in his young life, including the death of his uncle. “He is a real tough kid who was planning retaliation because he had discovered who had killed his uncle,” she said. “Our staff told him, ‘No, you’re not going to get a gun.’” 

But Smith Walker explained that this was his reality and what the team needed to understand about the students being served.

A short time after this incident, she said the same young man joined the annual, “All Boys Expedition,” a camping trip to Princeton, Ill. “We take students out to natural habitats to explore life sciences as well as experience the great outdoors, something our students rarely experience. While on a night time hike, the young man asked the teacher if it was OK for him to hold her hand because he was afraid,” Smith Walker said.