High school students get extensive college experience
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- Six high school students were huddled around a computer screen in a darkened lab room in Bowen Hall in late July, watching Princeton graduate student Steve Mwenifumbo manipulate an electron microscope. Housed in a gray boxy structure, the cutting-edge microscope is several times the size of a conven-tional microscope -- and up to 10,000 times more powerful. Its price tag is about $300,000.
"We're looking at 2,000 times magnification," explained Mweni-fumbo, who works with Professor Wolé Soboyejo in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department. "This microscope can go to 50,000 times magnification."
Welcome to a science class in the Princeton University Preparatory Program, which gathered its 44 students on campus this summer for an intensive academic experience in the sciences and the humanities designed to help them get ready for college. The participants in the program, who spent six weeks on campus, are teenagers from Ewing, Princeton and Trenton who have excelled in high school and are members of a group traditionally underrepresented at highly selective colleges and universities.
As student Jennifer DeSantis looked at the bone cancer cells under the electron microscope, she asked, "How do you tell the difference between cancer cells and regular cells?" Another pupil, Rudy Rodas, volunteered to raise the microscope's magnification using the computer mouse. Mwenifumbo froze the image Rodas had created and printed out a copy for him. Rodas was delighted with the hands-on lesson.
"An electron microscope is something you wouldn't find in any high school," he noted. "Using one was a really good experience."
The science curriculum, tailor-made for the program, had the students mixing their own mortar and using rock-crushing equipment to learn about architectural science and the deterioration of stone and sculpture. They also constructed roller coasters for a ball bearing to learn about the principles of motion and friction.
Half a dozen Princeton faculty members and four graduate students volunteered their time to work with the program.
"The science they have studied is graduate-level science, taken down a notch so they can understand it without knowing physics," said Daniel Steinberg, the director of education outreach for the Princeton Materials Institute, which helped organize the science classes. "We wanted to give them professors and labs and a real science experience."
Getting prepared for college
The Princeton Prep program, which is in its second year, hopes to prepare students not only to gain admission to highly competitive colleges, but also to be equipped to take advantage of the opportunities such schools offer. The program was the brainchild of Sociology Professor Miguel Centeno, who conceived of it as a way to give students who are underrepresented at top colleges a chance to be as prepared for an Ivy League education as their more affluent peers.
"We have all this financial aid available, but a lot of students don't realize it, so they never think of applying," he said. The program's goal was to "find these kids at age 14 and create a situation in which we can improve their chances of applying and making it to a place like Princeton or Yale or Harvard."
The program is free for the students. It is supported through a major contribution from the University with additional financial assistance provided by the Dennis Keller '63 Special Fund, the Independent College Fund of New Jersey through a grant underwritten by Johnson & Johnson, the Bonner Foundation and the Office of the Dean of the Chapel. Richard Carter, a program administrator at the Teacher Preparation Program, serves as Princeton Prep's principal.
For six weeks in July and August, the Princeton Prep students were picked up by buses and brought to the University each morning, where they spent close to five hours a day in the classroom discussing novels such as "To Kill a Mockingbird," doing hands-on science and exploring some of the concepts underlying calculus. They also took a daily art class, shared lunch at the Frist Campus Center, spent an hour a day in informal discussion groups supervised by four Princeton undergraduates (see related story on page 7) and went on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bucks County Playhouse. All in all, it was no day at the beach for the 21 sophomores and 23 juniors selected for the program.
Their friends may have teased them about going to school voluntarily in the summer instead of lounging in the sun -- Michele Chen's friends told her, "I can't believe you're giving up six weeks of your summer" -- but the consensus among the students was that the program was worth it. And each student is paid a $750 stipend each summer to partially offset the money they could have earned.
"People said, 'You're losing six weeks,' but I'm gaining six weeks," said student Anna Stange. "The program helps me explore myself and my options, and helps broaden my options. And it gives me an edge over other students. I'm learning things you don't learn in school."
"It's supposed to be like school, but it's not like school because they teach us in a different way, and it made me think about learning in a new way," said Yesenia Clemens.
The program requires a three-year commitment from the students, who start attending the summer after they finish their first year of high school. Every student who began the program in the summer of 2001 returned for this year's session.
Yili Fan, a native of China who works at Firestone Library, said her son Yinan is getting the kind of help with his studies that she can't give him because English is a relatively new language for her. "It's very important for me (that Yinan go to a good college)," she said. "Now I'm less worried than before because (the program) can help him." A counselor in the program helped Fan and her son sort out which science class he should take next year in high school. "They do whatever they can to help us, so I feel really happy with this program," Fan said.
The math program, which was new this year, drew raves for engaging students in a more sophisticated way than a typical math class.
"In high school math they teach us rules, but this summer we learned why," explained Stange. "High school didn't teach us why. It's like some foreign concept versus something you'll hold in your hands. Now I'm prepared for calculus next year. When they're telling us what to do, I'll know why."
Princeton Prep used a nationally recognized approach to teaching math called the Algebra Project, which develops the student's ability to understand mathematical concepts and uses them to explain fundamental principles of science. Bill Crombie, the Algebra Project's lead educator, taught geometry and calculus to the Princeton Prep students.
"It's just incredible hearing my daughter say she loves math because normally she hates it," said Elizabeth Kaczmarek of her daughter, Iwona. "But the way (Crombie) approaches it, it makes it exciting and intriguing to find the answers." One day when her daughter returned home from the program "she was flying. She said, 'I understood everything in algebra!' She had that great feeling when you really understand something."
The singing English teacher
English classes were taught by John Anagbo, a lively veteran high school teacher with a propensity to break into song during lessons, which immediately put his charges at ease. "I'm urging you this summer to always question, 'Why?'" Anagbo told the sophomores during the first week of the program.
The students had just started reading "Of Mice and Men," and Anagbo asked them if they had spoken to their grandparents about the Great Depression. Jerell Blakeley recalled his grandmother telling him about riots and lynchings. Anagbo urged the students to keep thinking about the historical period in which the book was set as they read. "Literature and life are always intertwined," he said.
By the end of the summer, Anagbo said he was impressed with the dedication of the students: One had turned in seven drafts of a writing assignment for his class. "The students dealt with the issues intellectually, and that is the key," Anagbo said during the program's final week. "We put these kids under a microscope, and they really stood up to the test."
The program doesn't end its involvement with the students in August; it provides academic and mentoring support during the school year as well. Each student meets monthly with a Princeton undergraduate who acts as a personal mentor, and there are weekly sessions on writing and math led by Princeton graduate students. And, of course, the students will be back on campus next summer.
As this year's session came to a close, the students reflected on what they had accomplished.
"I think my writing has improved," said Eboni Rabb, who wants to pursue a career in medicine.
Rafael Torres, who hopes to attend Princeton or perhaps the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agreed that writing was now easier for him. "Before, I used to have to really think, and now I start typing and it just comes to me."
"It wasn't like you just sat there and heard lectures. You actually got to do experiments," said Amanda Boone, who credited the program with helping her fight her shyness.
Jamie Sparano loved the science classes. "We did experiments with mortar and nanotechnology. It's pretty amazing that we had the opportunity to do that."
Added Rabb, "I think college is going to be fun."
Editor: Ruth Stevens