Space Explorers

Space Explorers Program

Founded in 1991, the Space Explorers Program has provided deep and meaningful experiences to over four hundred urban youth and one hundred scientists-mentors. Space Explorers has been a signature program of the KICP since its inception as the CfCP in 2001.

The Space Explorers Program offers youth from neighborhoods around the university who are underrepresented in STEM a multi-year science enrichment opportunity. The program provides over one-hundred contact hours each year including weekly laboratories taught on campus, three-day winter and week-long residential summer science institutes. This sustained engagement offers the Space Explorers the opportunity to become familiar with the university research community and the culture of science. It also helps to cultivate future scholars by offering a variety of valuable teaching, communication and teamwork experiences to younger scientists.

Participants are recruited by the Office of Civic Engagement’s College and Career Readiness Programs, our partner with deep community roots, and are selected based on interest and commitment rather than grades or test scores. Each year between 20-30 Chicago Public high school students participate, with well over one half being female, with priority given to students who will be first-generation college students and/or who come from low-income households. On average, students stay in the program for two to three years, and the results are impressive. Graduates of Space Explorers matriculate in college as science majors at a rate that is 500% better than is predicted by combined national and Chicago Public Schools statistics.  Over 50% of Space Explorers graduates choose a STEM related field of study for their college degree.

Residential Science Institutes

The biannual institutes provide an immersive environment that encourages scientific curiosity and exploration.  These institutes were formerly taught at the venerable Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, WI but, with its closing, have moved to alternate locations such as Fermilab or the University. The retreat-like setting offers ample time for in-depth studies (e.g., 5.5 hrs/day lab) and for valuable informal interactions with the scientists. During the first half of the institute, students explore thematically linked laboratories and investigations in small groups. During the latter part of the institute, each of the groups explores a single laboratory in greater depth (e.g. over two additional days in the summer) and prepares a presentation for parents and peers that culminate the institute.

Teaching Experiences

Each year a graduate student elects to lead the program and gains valuable pedagogical experience designing and implementing the curriculum. This student also leads a team of volunteers who work together to develop and implement the residential science institutes. Well over 60 Institute members have taught in residence at KICP science institutes most of them at Yerkes Observatory. Many other members of KICP are involved in the program through designing laboratories for the institutes, weekly tutoring, and other enrichment activities.


The Space Explorers program was evaluated by the professional evaluation firm Rockman et al. in 2015, Space Explorers 25th year anniversary.  The executive summary of the evaluation is available here.

Space Explorer launching a marble with a small trebuchet
A Space Explorer learns about lever arms by launching marbles with a trebuchet.
Participants of a Yerkes Winter Institute
Space Explorers Yerkes Winter Institute participant photo
3 Space Explorers constructing a mini robot
Space Explorers learning about electronics while constructing miniature robots
Space Explorers learning participating in a lab with Spheros
A Space Explorers lab on the remote control of robots
Space Explorers measuring the air pressure in a football
Space Explorers learning about pressure as they investigate the Super Bowl deflategate controversy.
Space Explorers at a Yerkes Residential Institute
Space Explorers Residential Institute group photo
Space Explorers and Instructors
Space Explorers lab group and instructors with their final presentation