Riding the Dinosaurs toward Science Literacy: Interview with Gabrielle Lyon

Gabrielle Lyon is the Executive Director and Cofounder of Project Exploration. But the story is much longer. She went to grad school (U. of Chicago) with my brother and he thought that Gabe and I would be interesting to each other due to our shared interest in dinosaurs. So we got in touch and kept it over e-mail over many years. She sent me a vial of Sahara sand and a small plant fossil from the trip, Project Exploration materials and t-shirts, etc. and I promoted PE here at my blog. We finally met in person at Scifoo last summer and conversations we had there, led, through some circuitous routes, to the Nigersaurus paper getting published in PLoS ONE. At the Science Blogging Conference three weeks ago, Gabrielle started her first blog, after years of resistance, where, for now, she is exploring the tools by making fun of me.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
Famous. (It seems this will take a long time).
Have you personally made a fossil discovery? Look there: something sticking out of the sand – a bone!
I have personally made a fossil discovery. Thousands and thousands of fossils – most were unremarkable. I am well known for having a keen eye for good looking rocks. One dinosaur I found has been named and, perhaps, even more exciting, has been translated for the public as a Carnegie model:
You can buy it here but I won’t benefit in any way from the proceeds.
Can you tell us something about Project Exploration? How did it get started, what are the successes to date, and what are the plans for the future?
Project Exploration is working to literally change the face of science – one student at a time. Project Exploration is a Chicago-based, nonprofit science education organization dedicated to bringing the excitement of discovery to the public–especially minority youth and girls. We get kids interested, keep them interested, and give them the tools they need to support their interests. We work in three areas–youth development, services for teachers, and public programs like traveling exhibits and a free educational web site.
I know that lots of science bloggers are involved with Science Debate 2008 – from a national-issue perspective, Project Exploration is directly addressing four critical issues in science education:
* Inequality of opportunity
* Lack of diversity
* Outdated teaching methods
* Workforce development
[For those that want to read the funnier parts of this interview, skip on down to me talking about Sean Carroll’s proselytizing. For those who are interested in learning more about how I’m trying to change the world, read on…]
The short version of the history is that Paul Sereno (my husband and a paleontologist at the University of Chicago) and I spent about 10 years doing fieldwork together in the Sahara, South America, Asia…and after each return, after each science announcement we were increasingly struck with the question: whose job is it to make sure that regular kids – kids like the ones in the schools I was teaching in the south side of Chicago – had access to science? We found a few patterns over and over again: Chicago is lucky to have great cultural institutions and science museums, but for the most part they are designed on a 19th century model. Objects/collections are at the heart of their design. Furthermore they are mostly focused on the macro-level – getting lots of people through the door. We were interested in the opposite: finding ways to connect people directly with scientists and the questions they ask. Furthermore, when we looked around to see what opportunities existed for KIDS to get involved with science we found one of two scenarios: science opportunities for students target students who are in the top 10% or students whose families could afford high-caliber opportunities. Again, we felt there was a real role for an organization to play to do something different, to do something no-one else was doing – and to create a model that would change the way people thought about science.
Paul and I founded a non-profit education organization, Project Exploration, in 1999. Since then my own understanding of the field of science and the historic, systemic disenfranchisement of minorities and women is much more informed and sophisticated. I am increasingly excited about the importance of our work to the national conversation about science and the possibilities for changing the status quo in how science happens and who it is for….
As far as Project Exploration goes, youth are still at the heart of work. We are having some remarkable and humbling results.
Our science immersion programs serve more than 250 Chicago Public School students, ranging in age from 12-17, with intensive after-school, service learning, and summer science programs. We inspire students about the natural world and their own potential, and we coach their development as successful learners, enabling them to achieve academically and personally.
* 70% of participants are female
* 85% percent of our students are from low-income families
* 65% are African American, 25% Latino, 10% Caucasian.
Track Record to Date for Youth in our Programs
Students engaged in our science field programs are significantly more likely to graduate high school, attend college and to major in science than their peers.
* 93% graduate high school (compared with 47% of all Chicago Public School students)
* 70% enroll in a four-year college
* 50% of all students who graduate high school as Project Exploration field alumni are majoring in science
Project Exploration girls are nearly five times more likely to pursue science in college than the national average.
STILL HUNGRY FOR MORE about PROJECT EXPLORATION? – Here are some other big ideas in a bite-sized and tasty readable Q&A form about Project Exploration (Bora asked – I’m only answering)
How are we different? LOTS of reasons!
* We don’t just focus on getting kids interested in science, we also keep them interested–and equip them to pursue science.
* We focus on personal relationships. Most science organizations (like museums) target thousands of people–they work at the MACRO level; we start at the individual level.
* People get to actually meet and work with scientists – not just hear about things second- or third-hand.
* We change the way people think about science and how it’s done.
* Most of the people who work in science don’t look like most of America’s population. We’re working to literally change the face of science.
The Status Quo vs. Project Exploration
Status quo: Most high-caliber science programs are only available to students who are academically successful or whose families can afford them.
What we do: Our youth programs are free to participants and target students who may not be academically successful, but who are curious and open-minded.
· Most of our 250+ students are minority Chicago Public School students
· 70% are girls
· More than half of our students are first generation college bound
Status quo: Most programs are a “one-shot deal”; students come in for a short period of time and don’t have a long-term involvement with the organization.
What we do: We work with students over many years; we also offer ongoing opportunities to be involved with science through service learning, internships and fieldwork programs.
· More than 90% of our students are still involved with our programs two years after their first experience with us.
Status quo: Most science programs focus on a specific skill or subject (how to build a computer, river ecology, etc.) and fail to address the nature of science and how it works.
What we do: We focus on how science works and highlight intersections with other fields, especially writing, arts, and communication.
At this point it’s rude to talk more about Project Exploration – visit us online: http://www.projectexploration.org. Feel free to make a donation of any size. We will put it to good work .We run a tight ship and donations go where they’re supposed to.
Gabe%2C%20me%20and%20Steve%20Steve.jpgWhen and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while following the Conference?
I discovered blogging from my friend Sean Carroll. (Not Sean Carroll the lepidopertist, Sean Carroll the theoretical physicist). Sean’s blog is called Cosmic Variance. When I suggested he change the name to “Comic” Variance he was non-plussed.
To be completely honest, when Sean said I should blog I thought he was nuts. I thought it was nuts for me to blog and I thought it was nuts for him to blog. For him, I saw it as a self-indulgent exercise in publishing what in the 19th century would have been called a diary; (perusals and private reflections normally published after death, if at all, for insights and contributions towards a person’s life’s work, the writings of which are primarily of interest to personality cult followers who simply can’t get enough of the real thing… like watching all the special features on the DVD version of your favorite TV show because the show has been cancelled and you just can’t get enough – or any more – any other way.)
For me, I saw blogging as an unimaginable expenditure of time in a life already so fractured I had a hard time capturing moments in my young child’s life in a preprinted baby book.
I would like to state for the record that I have come to realize these initial reactions were naive, uniformed, and possibly arrogant.
I have seen the light. (Yes, the computer screen light).
I have seen the error of my ways and humbly thank Sean – and now, too, Jennifer – for their unflappable encouragement. They are standard bearers for the movement and tireless in their efforts to reform a blogless sinner like me.
You started a blog at the Conference. May I link to it here or do you prefer to keep it anonymous for now? What do you plan to do with it?
SciPhi08 is now in the public domain. It is an exercise to help me learn how to do things – a chance for me to put myself through some “paces” and learn what’s what. It is also an awesome opportunity to talk about you, Bora.
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I primarily went to the conference out of a sense of responsibility. I felt that I, as the leader of a science education organization, ought to understand what was happening with blogging and what opportunities (or distractions) blogging might hold. I also felt some responsibility to learn about new tools and leverage this learning on behalf of students and teachers in our programs. I also felt that blogging was attracting a cohort of people who really care about communicating science well to the public and I wanted to meet some of these people. These were both good reasons to go. But they didn’t prepare me for what I would leave with…
In addition to meeting some fascinating people and making some great allies for my work, I left the conference carrying two big ideas with me that crystallized during my time in NC…
Firstly, I left with an extremely deep sense of the power Web 2.0 holds for building community – and the enormous potential it holds for Project Exploration as an untapped tool in our work to make science accessible. This feeling had been percolating around in a diluted way for the last six months thanks to a few trips to Google in CA and in Chicago, to talking with people who blog who are also activists… but to spend two days seeing web 2.0 take form like a golem in action (with activities like live-streaming video sessions, new wikis being created as sessions were taking place, Wayne reading a live question from the UK during the rowdy panel discussion at the end of the day on Saturday) brought it all home. The embodiment of the “open access” movement in the atmosphere of the conference served as a catalyst for making these ideas real…
Secondly, during the dinner conversation at the restaurant at the edge of the universe, one topic led to another and the guy I was sitting next to (Tom) made a comment about how change happens… that it happens with a small group of people setting things in motion…Tom wasn’t the first person to say something like this, and you can find posters attributing such sentiments to Eleanor Roosevelt or Margaret Meade on any given Sunday, but to hear Tom say this at a time when so many other ideas were ripening for me was juicy stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot about Kuhn’s nature of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts and Project Exploration’s work. I returned to Chicago inspired by the small group we’ve gathered and the ripple effect we can have – and the work ahead to become ever-more conscious about the critique we need to articulate about science and access…
These are exciting times of extraordinary change – in the world and possibly in ourselves.
Sooo – about a real blog.
I think blogs are for people who have something to say. I think I’m almost ready to have one…
Yes, you are. It was so nice seeing you again and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


7 responses to “Riding the Dinosaurs toward Science Literacy: Interview with Gabrielle Lyon

  1. Gabe, you rock! Loved the interview and your blog is a total hoot!
    Bora, we love the new “nose” photo but perhaps you might consider asking Gabe for permission to use her great photo of you from the SBC in your profile.

  2. Yup, Gabe took some of the best pictures there, but I may look too small in that picture!

  3. One thing you are not is small. If it’s high enough resolution we can crop you and blow you up. I’ll ask Gabe for permission and maybe the original full size photo.

  4. Yup, all in favor of blowing up Bora – tee hee.

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