Alumni initiative brings advanced physics and more to Mississippi students

A woman pointing to a scientific diagram on a projector screen while a group of teenagers watch.
During a two-week residential program this past summer, Yale Professor Meg Urry helped to prepare high school students for the AP Physics course they are now able to take in their Mississippi high schools due to the efforts of Yale alumni, current students, and others. (Photo courtesy of Global Teaching Project)

Last summer, while visiting the Rainwater Observatory & Planetarium in central Mississippi for the first time with a group of high school students, astrophysicist Meg Urry observed something she’s seen countless times with her Yale students: the excitement of people when they are learning something new.

I told the students that the orbits of Jupiter’s moons around the planet can all be explained by physics,” says Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics. “They were very excited. When given an opportunity to learn something, kids — and all of us — really enjoy it.”

Urry’s field trip with the high school students was part of two-week residential summer program, held at Mississippi State University, to ready the high school students for a year-long Advanced Placement (AP) Physics course they are now taking at their respective high schools. It is the first time that students from eight Mississippi school districts — in some of the poorest and most rural parts of the state — are able to take an AP Physics class, thanks to the efforts of a group of Yale alumni, current students, Urry, and others, through an initiative called the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access.

The consortium is part of a larger effort, the Global Teaching Project, whose mission is to provide access to advanced high school subject matter taught by highly qualified teachers to students from underserved areas in the U.S. and abroad, free of charge to the learners.  The Global Teaching Project was founded by Matt Dolan ’82, who left a career as a tax attorney in the Washington, D.C. area to start the initiative.  Since his undergraduate days at Yale, when he tutored students at New Haven’s August Lewis Troup School, Dolan has sought to promote educational opportunity and access in various capacities, including as a tutor, mentor, and board member to center city schools, and as an officer and director of a foundation focused on addressing educational disparities.

Dolan was soon assisted in the initiative by Kiran Ghia ’01, who was serving as CEO of a nonprofit that helped to launch a school in India for girls from modest backgrounds who demonstrated the potential for high academic achievement. Dolan and Ghia knew each other from their involvement in the Yale Club of Washington, D.C., for which Dolan served two terms as president. They two also enlisted the support of several Yale alumni — Eunice Kim ’82, ’86 LAW and Jim Steiner ’82, who were Dolan’s classmates at Yale, and Travis Reginal ’16, who is a graduate of Mississippi public schools — as advisers to the Global Teaching Project.

Across America, many students don’t have access to advanced courses, especially in STEM fields, because qualified teachers simply are not available,” says Dolan. “So the idea was to build a platform by which we could bring excellent teachers, particularly at the secondary-school level, to students who did not have these advanced courses. As we examined the most effective way to do this, we saw a particular need in rural areas.”

Dolan and Ghia decided to launch the pilot program in Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state, which ranks third in the nation for its percentage of students from rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A summer introduction

Talented students from the consortium’s school districts, who have been chosen by their schools for the inaugural AP Physics 1 course, “are very bright kids who don’t have access to the courses needed to fulfill their potential,” says Dolan. Many of the districts don’t offer AP courses in any subject at all, even though student enrollment in such courses “correlates strongly with college and career success,” he adds.

AP Physics 1, the first of three courses in the AP Physics sequence, was chosen as the consortium’s inaugural course because, according to Mississippi educators, physics instructors are among the most difficult to find to serve in consortium member schools.  In a recent year, the state’s teaching colleges produced just one physics teacher for the state’s 133,000 public high school students, Dolan notes. Also, AP Physics 1 is algebra-based, and thus better aligned with the students’ preparation than calculus-based alternatives.

To help prepare students for the rigor of the AP course, participating students were invited to take part in a two-week summer program residential program at Mississippi State University. They strengthened their foundation in math and physics through instruction by Professor Urry and other university-level faculty, as well as tutors from Yale, Stanford, and Mississippi State. Students’ math and science skills were assessed, and gaps in their knowledge were addressed by faculty and tutors, who also introduced the students to problem-solving techniques and strategies for use in the classroom or laboratory. About half of the 60 students now enrolled in AP Physics 1 took part in the summer session, during which they were able to meet and hear presentations from Urry and Reginal, among others. They also got a taste of college life while living for two weeks on the Mississippi State campus.

Master teachers and student tutors

The yearlong pilot AP course is now being presented at the Mississippi high schools in a blended format: Urry serves as the lead instructor, with her teaching primarily conducted via pre-recorded videotaped classroom sessions that are shown in the high school classrooms.

In each high school classroom, there is also an experienced on-site teacher who has, at a minimum, strong math skills, and who implements lesson plans, supervises labs, and helps students work through assignments. College students from Yale and the University of Virginia serve as tutors to the students, typically meeting with them twice weekly during real-time, online sessions on “chat” platforms such as Google Hangouts. Each student is provided a new copy of a course textbook, as well as access to “MasteringPhysics,” an online resource that features lesson plans, review questions, sample exams, and more. Two veteran Mississippi-based “master teachers” who are certified to teach AP Physics are responsible for preparing weekly lesson plans and lab assignments, supporting the on-site teachers, and addressing any academic concerns. A Saturday session also has been initiated for students who would benefit from additional academic support.

The tutoring by college students is an important facet of the program, because we wanted to create a peer group the students can identify with, where the college students can be an example for the younger students,” says Dolan. “For the high school students, seeing high-achieving students close to their own age may inspire them to say, ‘I can be this type of student, too.’ ”

Yale sophomores Brian Dolan (Matt Dolan’s son) and Blake Norwick, both physics majors, are among the eight college tutors for the consortium’s AP Physics course.

The younger Dolan was a counselor to the high school students during the pilot summer program and now holds online hour-long tutoring sessions twice a week via Google Hangouts for students at two Mississippi high schools. Norwick tutors students at another high school twice weekly for an hour.

A group of teenage students watching a teacher on a large video chat screen.
Yale sophomore Brian Dolan tutors students at two high schools each week, going over material for their course in real-time sessions via Google Hangouts. (Photo courtesy of Global Teaching Project)

Giving these students the same opportunity that I had in high school is really rewarding,” says Norwick, who hails from a Detroit suburb. Each week, he asks the classroom teacher for AP Physics to send him some problems in advance that he then can use to help illuminate the material or to introduce broader scientific concepts during his sessions.

I teach a lot of problem-solving techniques, because learning how to solve problems is really valuable,” says Norwick. “I try to break down problems, asking the students which formulas might be applicable in a certain situation and how to apply them. I walk them through that process. A lot of the students are not going to be physics majors, but I think physics can teach you a lot about problem-solving, which can help you throughout life.”

Brian Dolan is so dedicated to helping his students master the material in the course that he once conducted his tutoring sessions from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he had gone to undergo medical testing after learning he was a match for someone on the national bone marrow registry. (He had signed up to be a donor during a “Be The Match®” bone marrow registration drive at Yale.) At the hospital, however, his chief concern was finding a quiet room where he could conduct his online tutoring.

My father has a cousin who happens to work at the hospital, so I was able to use space in his cramped lab,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss my time with the students.”

Brian Dolan says that while the high school students have the aptitude to succeed in the course, many “haven’t been exposed to this kind of academic rigor before.”

A few weeks into the course, the students in my sessions took a test, and they were blown away by the grades they got,” he says. “They were not prepared. A lot of them were ready to drop the program, but we pointed out that that’s our reason for being there: to give them the preparation and support they need because this course hasn’t been taught in their schools before. That brought them back upward.”

Expanding horizons

The Yale tutors say they are pleased to hear some of their students talk more recently about their plans to apply to selective colleges or their hopes for careers in STEM fields.

During the summer session, we spent a lot of time encouraging the students to have an open mind about their next steps,” the younger Dolan says. “The majority of them said they would go to community college and then transfer to Mississippi State. That’s a great option, but I think that part of the reason so many said that is because they never considered that it may not be their only option.” Among the schools now being mentioned by some of the students he tutors are Princeton and Howard universities.

During my sessions, some of the high school students ask me about my classes at Yale,” adds Norwick. “For many of these students, the experience of being in the AP Physics course is broadening their horizons.”

Building a community of learners

Ghia, whose family emigrated from India to the United States, says that bringing the advanced physics course to the Mississippi students is motivated in large part by her own experience at Yale, where many of its students mastered high school AP courses in various subjects.

My family came from very little,” she says. “I am mindful every day for the opportunities afforded me because of Yale, which from the moment I got there was a life-changing experience for me. I truly believe that everyone deserves the kind of education I got at Yale, no matter where they are from. That motivation has led me every day, both in my work in India and on this project.”

Matt Dolan says that his education at Yale was so “transformative and energizing” that he wanted to find a way to share similar experiences with students whose educational opportunities are limited by geography and resources.

Yale is a community of extraordinary people, some of whom have been tremendous resources for our initiative,” he says. “Part of the value of Yale is that it made me part of a community of talented people. That’s what I want to share with others. By bringing Meg, Blake, and Brian to these high school students, and supporting them in their advanced coursework, we are hoping to build what Kiran and I call “a community of achievement.”

Adds Ghia: “The rigor of the coursework that AP Physics provides the students is important because we believe that rigor is contagious. Perhaps a sibling or a classmate of our students will now be inspired to reach higher. Rigor is not just for the sake of rigor; it has ripple effects.”

Measuring success

While the outcome of the initiative won’t entirely be known until the students take their AP Physics exam at the end of the school year, Brian Dolan says he has faith in his students’ ability to perform well. His father says test performance is only one metric of the initiative’s success, however.

I already view this project as a success, largely because of how these students are beginning to think about themselves,” he explains. “Will some pass? Absolutely. Will all of them pass? No, clearly you’re never going to have everyone pass the test. But these are kids who never had this opportunity before, and they are learning what academic rigor is about, and they are learning to think about themselves in a different way.”

In time, Dolan and Ghia hope to expand their initiative to other parts of the United States and even beyond the nation’s borders. Their entity, the Global Teaching Project, also has completed production of its initial AP course in India, home to some 500 million residents under the age of 20, and is contemplating other initiatives in Korea and elsewhere.

An expression of gratitude

In a letter written to his school superintendent after attending the summer program, Braeden Yarbrough, a junior in the consortium’s AP Physics course at Lake High School in Lake, Mississippi, highlighted the impact of the initiative — and his gratitude for the opportunity to take part in it —after his two weeks in the summer program.

 “Through this camp, I learned much about the curriculum involved with physics and its basic principles, but I learned something much more important: never think a dream is too big,” he wrote.

At the camp were two counselors who attend two very prestigious universities: Stanford and Yale,” he continued. “Through all the classes, they were present and willing to assist in our understanding of the curriculum being taught. These two brilliant young men have given me appropriate role models to strive to match in success. In fact, I am considering following in their footsteps and diving deeper into the concepts of physics and its beautiful intricacies. However, it was not simply these two men who inspired me, but it was the entire staff. The teachers and [other] counselors taught me how to be successful: gave me tips for the future, and showed incredible patience and compassion through the learning process. After all, what greater lesson is to be learned than this? Without this preparatory camp, I am not sure of how prepared I would have been for AP Physics 1, but I am also not sure of how well I would have been prepared for the future.”

Yarbrough closed his letter telling the superintendent he would make it his “personal mission” to not let his school district down.

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