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‘Girly girl’ gets down, dirty to hunt fossils in Sahara

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Updated: March 19, 2012 8:03AM

Chatham native Kaitlin Judkins concedes she was a “girly girl” cheerleader who hated getting dirty or skinning her knee before she found “Project Exploration,” a Chicago non-profit that dinosaur hunter Paul Sereno started so city kids could learn about science in outdoor archeological digs.

Judkins, now 22 and an energy efficiency marketing specialist at Exelon Corp., has transformed into a globe-trotting fossil finder, having recently returned from 27 days camping in a tent in the Sahara Desert on an expedition to a Stone Age cemetery. The explorers had to have military escorts to work at the site, considered a crucial link to understanding life in Africa before Egyptian civilization emerged.

“After the 25th day, I was tired of the desert, but it was really beautiful,” said Judkins, who befriended the native Tuareg nomads and learned to be OK using the nearest bush as an outhouse. She picked up some of the Tuareg language when the nomads traversed the camp in their camel caravans.

“You could see the stars at night and when the moon was low enough, you could see the entire desert landscape,” she said. “The sunrise was beautiful and the landscape breathtaking.”

The experience marked Judkins’ first time interacting with an overseas culture and dealing with delayed international flights.

Judkins couldn’t be stopped from blogging about her experience, as she described her work as a junior paleontologist at Gobero, Niger, site of the cemetery dig.

She excitedly wrote about the significance of seeing 1,000-year-old artifacts from the Kiffian and Tenerain civilizations.

On Dec. 14, 2011, she wrote, “The site itself was difficult to excavate at first because of all the hardened calcrete that surrounded the skeleton. After digging, brushing and scraping our knees on the calcrete, we saw the humerus and tibia, then teeth!! (Teeth are always a good sign, because then the age of the skeleton can potentially be dated back in the lab.)”

In fact, Judkins — the youngest member of Project Exploration’s board of directors — said she took her initial leap of faith from girly-girl to boldness when Sereno’s wife, Project Exploration co-founder and senior explorer Gabrielle “Gabe” Lyon, challenged her to “cowgirl it up” and climb a rock formation when Judkins went on her first expedition to the Badlands of Montana 11 years ago.

“Coming from the city, I had never hiked before and that was a monumental moment,” Judkins said. “When I got to the top, the sun was shining and the weather was great. At that moment, I looked around and realized that I had what it took to overcome difficult challenges. It was worth more than gold.”

Lyon and Sereno co-founded the organization 13 years ago to give young people, and especially girls and children of color, the chance to work with scientists in the field.

Project Exploration works each year with 250 middle- and high-school students at 40 Chicago Public Schools, of whom 74 percent are girls and 85 percent from low-income Latino and African-American families.

Eileen Sweeney, senior director of the Motorola Mobility Foundation that helps fund Project Exploration’s work, said Lyon understands how students can create lives filled with great possibilities after they’ve gained the kinds of skills and confidence the expeditions impart.

“They bring the thrill of discovery, and show girls that they can be innovators and discoverers,” said Sweeney, who started Motorola Mobility’s Innovation Generation Grants program to help kids gain interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Other STEM proponents are sponsoring ventures overseas to attract young people, who have always wanted to change the world and increasingly want to do so as global citizens.

Engineering for Change LLC, which uses an acronym – E4C – common to young people who would rather text than email, has set up an online network at to help solve global humanitarian crises and to develop principles governing engineers’ work.

Noha El-Ghobashy, E4C’s president, said the idea appealed to her because she became an engineer “to make a difference and an impact on humanity.”

The E4C website, headquartered with the national mechanical engineers’ association in New York City, features a “workspace” where engineers or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may submit challenges in search of a solution or where students may upload projects on which they need expertise.

A success story has resulted: The online community helped Climate Healers, a non-profit dedicated to combating the climate crisis, design a solar stove that cooks at night. The innovation lets women in rural India cook dinner and breakfast in the early morning without disrupting their schedules.

The site includes a bulletin board where people, companies and groups can offer resources and donate materials or testing facilities to help ongoing projects.

The need to attract young people to engineering has become increasingly acute as studies show that China has surpassed the United States in awarding doctorates in engineering and natural sciences. The United States awarded 8,110 doctorates, including 57 percent to foreign students, versus China’s 15,276, according to a Jan. 17 National Science Board report.

Rob C. Wolcott, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network, said STEM education must be linked with creativity.

“That comes from inspiration, engagement and challenges — the sorts of things provided by learning in real-world contexts,” he said.

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