New Chicago site enables the support of a variety of causes
Devethia Deloach Durand, a West Side native, discovered her passion and, ultimately, her career, by feeding doodlebugs, searching for dinosaur eggs and digging up dinosaur bones.
“I want to get my Ph.D. in the sciences, but I’m still narrowing down my passions,” said Durand, 22, who majored in animal science with a minor in chemistry at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Her fascination with science started because of a non-profit organization based in Woodlawn called Project Exploration.
Durand, who alternated between the highest and second-highest academic ranking at Paul Robeson High School in the Englewood neighborhood, earned a spot as a University of Chicago Collegiate Scholar when she was 13. That’s how she chose Project Exploration.
Such non-profits have attracted their own Groupon-like website, Chicago-based Philanthroper (http://philanthroper.com). Philanthroper, which just launched its donation program for international non-profits, offers subscribers the opportunity to donate $1 via Paypal to a different cause each weekday.
It lists all of that week’s causes, both domestic and international, each Saturday and Sunday. People who donate may share their good deed via Facebook and Twitter. Chicago-based UnitOneNine designed the site, which relies on advertising to make money. Paypal takes 10 cents of each dollar donated as its processing fee.
Mark Wilson, a native of Crete who now lives in Streeterville, said he created Philanthroper to enable people to support a variety of causes and create a better society in their own way.
“I thought, if this could work, it would be really game changing,” said Wilson, 29, who is a former news editor and now photo-challenge coordinator at tech blog Gizmodo. “There’s no doubt we have a soft spot for small non-profits.”
Philanthroper has featured three Chicago-based non-profits of the 95 it has sponsored since its initial launch five months ago.
Project Exploration, an example of just such a home-grown non-profit, offered Durand the chance to take her first trip outside of the Midwest — to Montana to search for dinosaur eggs and bones. The following summer, she served as a team leader on the Montana trip.
The experiences helped Durand overcome her shyness, partly caused by her skin condition, Vitiligo, which causes white patches on the skin.
“I learned that it is OK to be different and to ask questions,” she said.
Durand and her husband, Kirt, attended college together and married two weeks after graduation. Kirt is pursuing a doctorate in analytical chemistry at Purdue University-Lafayette.
Theirs are the results that Project Exploration’s leaders — Gabrielle “Gabe” Lyon and her husband, noted University of Chicago dinosaur explorer Paul Sereno — want to see happen throughout Chicago Public Schools.
They want their methods to become a model for how Chicago Public School school students learn science, particularly for girls, students of color and those who struggle academically.
“Our kids are graduating at twice the rate of Chicago Public Schools students, and two-thirds are pursuing science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degrees in college,” Lyon said.
Project Exploration works each year with 250 middle- and high-school students at 40 Chicago Public Schools — 74 percent of whom are girls and 85 percent from low-income Latino and African-American families.
“The No. 1 thing our students suffer from is a lack of quality education,” she said. “A work force that can be part of our knowledge economy requires an education that equips them to think creatively and logically.”
The secret? Making science fun, giving kids up-close experiences with scientists and putting caring adults in charge.
Kids require hands-on study outside of a classroom, daily reading and writing immersion, and long-term involvement throughout their high-school years, including in summer programs, Project Exploration’s 10-year study of its program concludes.
The program was named last year as a national model by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and won the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
While Project Exploration awaits a public-school-wide adoption, its leaders will double the number of students they serve, to 500; expand the “Sisters4Science” program aimed at connecting girls with women science, tech and engineering professionals, and create a regional alliance of like-minded programs to ensure that more Chicago students gain access to them.
The Chicago Public Schools supports 120 STEM-related clubs at 120 of its schools, and will expand to 180 schools this fall. The expansion includes a new partnership between 20 CPS schools and billionaire U.K. inventor James Dyson, the vacuum-cleaner entrepreneur who is investing $500,000 in after-school programs that focus on engineering and design technology.
The Dyson program will make available to all Chicago public schools an “engineering education box” that lets students brainstorm, sketch and model inventions.
The Durands return to Robeson High School regularly to encourage young people to pursue STEM fields, regardless of studies that show continued workplace barriers or even their own uncertainties about their ultimate paths.
Said Devethia, “I tell them, ‘Be open to opportunity. Keep exploring life. … Stay open to what life has to offer.’ ”