As women break barriers at nearly every level, STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – remain male-dominated. The few brave women who pursue a STEM path are often pushed out by discrimination, intimidation, and harassment. In school, from elementary to college, girls are rarely encouraged to see STEM as an option.

Project Exploration has spent nearly 20 years working to change that.

Founded in 1999, the organization empowers young people to become leaders, build confidence, and develop positive relationships – all through science-rich programming. The Sisters4Science program, funded in part by Chicago Foundation for Women, engages girls, connecting them with female facilitators who “emphasize leadership development through scientific exploration.”

Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science program introduces girls to STEM #AllInwithCFW Share on X

Melissa Alfaro and Eugenia Ruiz are such a pair. Alfaro is an energetic middle schooler who joined the program one year ago, and Eugenia is her mentor/facilitator. Eugenia’s sister was a student in the founding class of Sisters4Science and when she reached the eighth grade, her mother said, “All right, it’s your turn!” She has been involved ever since. “I started off as a student and went through the basic programs. And then I started working for Sisters4Science as an intern at the Fossil Lab. Then I moved to onsite coordinator and now facilitator.”

Through the Sisters4Science program, Project Exploration sparks interest in and engagement with subjects that are not currently popular among girls. In 2014, a national study found that only 3% of high school girls were interested in engineering, compared to 31% of males. The study also revealed that just 2% of girls reported being interested in technology, where 15% of boys expressed an interest.

Eugenia is able to give to Melissa what was given to her when she went through the program. “The instructors were like kids; they always connected with us. I always felt like PE (Project Exploration) was my home. I get to be that mentor to the students. Just being able to be there for the kids always felt really good. That’s why I’m going into guidance counseling. PE helped shape that.”

On Melissa, she shares, “From the first day, she was super energetic. If I needed anything, ‘can I help?’ She’d always have a positive attitude in the classroom and spread that around to the other students.”

Melissa wants to be a singer and a doctor, and credits the Sisters4Science program for sparking her interest in the latter. She recalls visiting Northwestern University where among her peers, she was only one of two “brave souls” who touched a brain. “It felt kind of gooey, kind of gross,” she admits. Of the type of doctor she wants to be, Melissa happily shares, “I want to be one of those doctors that does checkups on people’s ears. I had experience with it. It’s cool to imagine using a machine to take out all of the earwax…I’m actually making the world a better place!” Melissa also has had the opportunity to work alongside her brother, Daniel, who is in the boys’ program, Brothers4Science. He wants to be an engineer, and recalls his favorite memory of Project Exploration was being able to go on a plane ride at Lewis University, and also try one of the simulator games.

In addition to the mentorship that occurs between the student and facilitator, what makes Project Exploration’s programs so unique is that students get the opportunity to have a hands on experience with science. Eugenia recalls her favorite memories from when she went through the program was, “The fact that everything was hands-on. It wasn’t like you’re in class taking notes. Everything here is an activity. We’re learning from that activity.”

“Project Exploration helped them to believe in themselves and go to college. To hear that my son wants to be an engineer, or that my daughter wants to be a doctor is more than a parent could ask for,” shares Gloria Alfaro, the mother of Melissa and Daniel. Project Exploration and its commitment to girls’ interest and development in STEM is central to Chicago Foundation for Women’s 100% Project, a bold vision to end gender bias and increase economic security for women. In addition to women being paid equitably and having access to equal opportunities, girls must also be encouraged and inspired to pursue paths not often taken.

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