5 ways to connect high schoolers with higher ed

For a Rice University professor, serving as a research mentor to high school students has benefitted his students, his university, and his own academic outlook

What is the fundamental difference between high school and college? I would say it is the independence and freedom in learning. High school students gear their efforts toward exams and transcripts. They don’t focus their time on processing large volumes of reading, picking apart flaws in an author’s argument, and generating their own ideas. But this is the beauty of college if students know how to handle it well. So giving them tools and relationships they need to succeed in colleges is critically important.

Based on my experience mentoring high-caliber high school students in a rigorous research process through The Pioneer Research Program, here are five ways that educators can connect with students and help them prepare for the next stage of their academic careers.

1. Engage with students closely
For the past few years, I’ve served as an online research mentor to groups of high school students through Pioneer Academics. I work with only three or four students at a time, and these small classes help foster a real connection. I can really get to know everything about students on a deeper level.

While mentoring these students, I spend quite a bit of time interacting with them about politics via the program’s learning management system, but I also help field their questions about college applications and personal statements. I couldn’t do that with a class of 20, but I can do that with a class of four. I can devote time to them and offer them a perspective on their work and their college applications that they may not be getting elsewhere.

2. Challenge high schoolers to work with undergraduate materials
The material I deliver to my high school students is exactly the same as in my college classes. For example, we use Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy, the same text I use in my comparable upper-division Rice seminar. I take a subset of the modules from my Rice course for juniors and seniors and use it with my high schoolers.

When students write their final research paper at the end of the class, they use the same approach as my college juniors and seniors: the outline, the topic, the analysis, and the presentation. Most high school students haven’t written a 20-page paper before, and finishing one shows them that they’re capable of sticking with a long research undertaking that will take multiple revisions and modifications. It’s a benefit in terms of experience, and also serves as a writing sample that they can include in their college application packet.

3. Turn class into a conversation
Today’s technology is sufficiently advanced that my online class is comparable to being in a seminar room with four students. I’ve found that it can be more conversational and interactive than lecturing. A physical classroom can create a divide—the professor at the podium and the students in their seats. Online, the professor is leading the conversation, but everyone is more or less equal, which prepares students for the more active role they’re often asked to play in college classes.

4. Integrate different points of view
My classes introduce students to college-level work, and they also introduce Rice as a university to these students. We’re a top 20 school, but we aren’t as well-known as schools like Harvard or Yale.

The classes have also been helpful in bridging the gaps in mindsets between different cultures and systems. My cohorts have included a good number of Chinese students. Given that the worldviews of China and the United States are very different, it can be good for U.S. citizens to see things from a Chinese point of view. Even if we don’t agree, it’s still good for American students and educators to understand where they’re coming from.

5) Keep the mentoring ongoing
If any of my high school students chose to attend Rice, I would certainly continue a relationship with them, especially if they were in social science and public policy. But even if they weren’t in my field, I would still keep an informal connection. Mentorship, especially during students’ first year, can be an enormous help in navigating the bureaucracy.

I’m preparing high school students for the kind of research work they will conduct at distinguished colleges and universities. It’s a natural extension for me to want to help them get into their college of choice. Most of the students send me emails when they have been accepted, and those are emails that always bring a smile to my face.

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