Academic College Visits for High Schoolers

As a teacher in a Title 1 school that prides itself on our 100% college acceptance rate, I'm immersed in a teacher culture obsessed with college access for all. What makes it possible for a student to be the first in her family to go to college? What experiences break down barriers and open doors? Last week, Inver Hills Community College provided my AP Biology and Accelerated Biology students with an experience that broke barriers like Chuck Yeager's rocket-powered aircraft.

Inver Hills Community College provost Christina Royal greeted us in a lecture hall, where students heard a private 90-minute talk on the history of major genetic findings. Professor Bob Iwan gave a an engaging talk that allowed time for student questions. Best of all, Professor Iwan gave the students note catchers that tracked his PowerPoint with critical thinking prompts. Our history-obsessed students got a lot to think about - why was Gregor Mendel so meticulous in his scientific methodology? How can you prove that the molecule of heredity is DNA and not protein, when chromosomes wrap both molecules together so tightly? Why did Hershey win a Nobel prize for the Hershey-Chase experiments, when Chase didn't?

We enjoyed a fabulous lunch in the cafeteria...who knew you could put macaroni and cheese inside a grilled cheese sandwich? Well, you can, and the cooks at Inver Hills do, and 15-year-olds think it's a delicious combination.

After lunch, we headed to one of Inver Hill's biology labs. Students had their choice: animal anatomy or microbiology. The vegetarians were lead by Professor Iwan in the classic gram stain lab - a series of colorful dyes that divulge whether bacteria are gram + (this means they have a sugary, sloppy coating) or gram - (no coating). It's a tricky procedure with many time-sensitive steps, and I'm proud to say that my students all got results - and fanangled oil-immersion lenses to view those results.

The other half of our group followed my co-teacher, Dr. Sandy Schreyer, to the dissection lab. This was a rare treat - for a variety of philosophical and pedagogical reasons, I don't teach dissection anymore. Dr. Schreyer led these intrepid high-schoolers in the dissection of fetal pigs, rats, hearts, and brains. Their fascination was boundless.

When my students hit senior year and it's time for them to face down college applications and FAFSAs, they'll have at least one experience in an actual college classroom and a real college lab. In other words, kids' natural fear of the unknown doesn't apply to college in the way it used to. Even the kids who were planning on going to college all along might not have realized that college involves macaroni and cheese sandwiches as well as Bunsen burners and white lab coats. Seeing college from the inside opens windows in students' minds, awakens them to the possibilities of their unfolding lives, and inspires the disciplined practice required to make the collegiate leap.


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