John M. Eger – Huffington Post

Lionel Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy,
San Diego State

Posted: March 3, 2011 06:26 PM


Roadtrip Nation, a relatively small (32 people) nonprofit that according to a Hewlett Foundation newsletter provides a “unique brand of career counseling to 100,000 at-risk students,” was moved by a Gates Foundation report called “The Silent Epidemic”. The report found that more than 80 percent of the kids said their likelihood of staying in school would have increased if classes had provided opportunities for “real-world learning.”

Real world learning.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many dropouts are brilliant, and might thrive if truly challenged with a curriculum that is not only “real world” but worldly in the sense that the subject matter allows them to explore the outer reaches of their mind, the outer limits of the universe.

Fortunately, such programs at the University level — but intended for young people from freshman to seniors in high school — are slowly popping up across the nation.

One such effort is Academic Connections, at the California University at San Diego.

Held each summer, and soon all year round, Academic Connections reaches out to high schools throughout the region to find those who want not just the college experience, but also the chance to spread their wings by taking truly interdisciplinary courses and working side-by-side with tenured professionals doing exciting cutting-edge research.

Its not a “blind need” admissions process, but through partnerships with organizations like Reality Changers, the program manages to accommodate over one third of bright students from families who otherwise could not afford the Academic Connection experience.

A sampling of the course offerings in one session alone is exciting:

  • Building Musical Instruments (Real and Imaginary)
  • Evolution of a Planet: Understanding the Climatic and Biologic Changes that Shape the Earth
  • From Elephants to Eyelashes: Art of Writing Poetry
  • Gray Matters: Brain Function and Neural Plasticity
  • Hands-On Introduction to Climate Change
  • Introduction to Bioinformatics
  • It’s a GPCR World: Introduction to the Interplay of Biology, Chemistry and Physics
  • Microbial Oceanography and Ecology
  • Principles of Macroeconomics: The Business Cycle and Financial Markets
  • Robot Ruminations: Building & Programming Fundamentals
  • Social Problems and Civic Action
  • Sounds of the World’s Languages
  • The Varieties of Human Experience: An Introduction to Anthropology

Talk about courses that are interdisciplinary, technology based, and real world.

While Academic Connections Research Studies faculty members are typically UCSD doctoral students who design and instruct their own courses, “research scholars” (it takes a 3.8 GPA to participate as a research scholar) faculty are full-fledged UCSD faculty members and students work one-on-one with them.

Recently, Chris Warren, the doctoral student teaching the course called “Building Musical Instruments (Real and Imaginary),” demonstrated the “PixelHarp”, a computer program that allows the user to play the harp by merely moving your hand through space; and which all the kids in his class get to play with as they themselves develop their own software perhaps to do something similar. As the course copy promises, “a particular emphasis (is) placed on the intersection of art and technology and the use of each to inform the other. Small daily projects will lead up to a larger final work and concert.”

Dr. Ed Abeyta, Director of Academic Connections, explained that the program is 10 years old, and modeled loosely after a summer program offered by Johns Hopkins.But “Academic Connections is designed to break new ground…giving K-12 kids a taste of real world learning.”

High School need not be the long dark tunnel best described by Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, in Jefferson’s Children: Education and The Promise of American Culture. Botstein actually runs three early college programs, two of which are public high schools in New York, where students are awarded a junior college, or AA degree after the 12th grade.

In like fashion, Academic Connections blurs the lines between high school and college and extended education. Maybe this will catch on elsewhere around the country.

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