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Harvard’s Poetry Experiment

26 February 2021

Dear Chemistry Colleagues, 

Relatively early on in my teaching at Penn State, I realized that I could teach material as difficult as I wanted to as long as I enabled my students.  For many years I taught honors introductory chemistry and students not only learned quantum numbers but they solved the Schrodinger wave equation in one dimension—something that continues to be done in this class.  How did this come to pass?  We provided opportunity, we enabled the students, and we didn’t underestimate them.  They learned how to solve second order linear differential equations and apply boundary conditions.  They plotted the solutions in 3D to see quantum numbers as planar and radial nodes and as orbital orientations.  Sure it was hard, but it also turned out to be one of their favorite parts of the course. Perhaps it was because of these experiences that the recent New York Times article “A College Program for Disadvantaged Teens Could Shake Up Elite Admissions” resonated so strongly with me.

In this program, Harvard University enrolled underprivileged high school students in its course “Poetry in America: The City From Whitman to Hip-Hop.”  These students did not take some watered down version of the course, rather “The high schoolers met the same rigorous standards of the course created for Harvard’s admitted students—they listened to lectures, took quizzes and completed essays, and they were graded by the same standards.”  This initiative was started by the non-profit, National Education Equity Lab.  What I found intriguing is that this program gave students from underprivileged backgrounds the confidence to face the rigors of competitive colleges.  Leslie Cornfeld, the Equity Lab’s founder and chief executive, said “our nation’s talent is evenly distributed; opportunity is not.” It seems self-evident, but as scientists we want proof.  Well here it is, “Of the students who completed the course in fall 2019—92 percent of whom were students of color, 84 percent of whom qualified for free lunch—89 percent passed, earning four credits from Harvard Extension School that are widely accepted by other colleges.” I was inspired by the quotes from the students themselves.  Among them was Latisha Jones, 17, of Flint, Michigan who said, “The fact that I can do this, a girl from Flint, the place with the dirty water, it really makes me feel empowered. I’ve had teachers tell me that I wouldn’t be anything, that I was just a stereotype. If I can do this, I can pave the way for my community.”

Elitism is rampant.  Racism is rampant.  We do our students a huge injustice by underestimating them.  Bob Dylan wrote, “And if you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.” Our students can do hard things, in the classroom and in the research lab, but we have to bring them to the table, and we have to create and offer opportunities.  A challenge is to not underestimate those around us but to identify diverse talent at all levels—undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and faculty—and then nurture it, like tending to a garden. 

Best Regards,