In the face of uncertainty caused by Covid-19, Pioneer’s POSS program provides academic empowerment to students around the world

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Across the world, educational institutions are grappling with how best to address the realities of COVID-19 with their students. Pioneer Academics took an innovative approach with Pioneer Open Summer Study (POSS), a collaborative, research-based academic program offered free of charge to interested high school students. In three courses, students dove into the topic of COVID-19 from three different academic disciplines (an additional course topic in anthropology gave students the chance to look at how changes in society occur more broadly). 1078 students from all over the world enrolled in the program, working in 171 teams. Alumni of the Pioneer Research Program served as Independent Study Advisors, providing support and mentorship. The program culminated in a collaborative research project designed and executed by the students themselves.

The age we live in seems truly unprecedented–and yet this is far from the first pandemic humanity has experienced. In the course “The Age of Plague: Medicine, Society and Epidemics, 1348 & Beyond,” Dr. Paula Findlen of Stanford University structured her POSS course to look to the past to better understand the present–and vice versa. “New pandemics like the one we’re living through often make us rethink what we understand about past diseases,” says Dr. Findlen. As in all Pioneer Open Study courses, the content was designed as a jumping off point for students to ask their own questions and design independent research projects. Plague was offered as a case study to get students thinking about how societies have responded to diseases throughout history, and how the diseases themselves have developed and changed over time. 

“Pandemics and Globalization: Economics, Culture, and Policy,” designed and taught by Dr. Irene Finel-Honigman of Columbia University, sought to give students the tools and frameworks to understand the differential impacts of COVID-19 in a globalized world. Addressing students, Dr. Finel-Honigman emphasized the importance of the current moment: “You are living an extraordinary period of historical fascination. You are in the midst of history.” With so much upheaval around the globe, even the most well calculated projections about the future have been turned on their heads–which makes it more important than ever to teach students how to pursue the tough questions raised by the pandemic. “The focus of this course is to discover a new way of assessing, of examining, of analyzing complex projects,” says Dr. Finel-Honigman. While students are encouraged to do their own independent studies, Dr. Finel-Honigman cautions them to make sure they are using credible sources. “There is a big difference between information and knowledge,” she says. As misinformation and conspiracy theories proliferate online, it is crucial that students learn to distinguish fact from fiction. 

Finally, Dr. David J. Veselik of the University of Notre Dame tackled COVID-19 from an epidemiological perspective in the course “Pandemics Epidemiology: Societal Impacts and Strategic Response.” Each of the five teams in Dr. Veselik’s course chose a different country to research, and produced a research paper detailing that country’s response to the pandemic. 

POSS came at a crucial time for many students as summer internships, jobs and research opportunities were cancelled due to the pandemic. Kiran Ahmad, a rising senior from New York, had been looking forward to participating in a summer science research program before the wave of shutdowns. She says that most of her teammates were in the same position. When she found out about POSS from a Pioneer Research Program alumna at her high school, she jumped at the opportunity. As a team leader in “The Age of Plague,” she took on the responsibility of managing her group and helping them stay motivated. “I picked up more leadership qualities, so I liked that for me,” she says. 

Gayatri Sharma of Agra, India recently graduated from high school and will begin her freshman year at Barnard College this fall. Her summer plans were also affected by COVID-19; she had an internship lined up at a firm in Delhi which was cancelled. As an alumna of the Pioneer Research Program, however, she was given the opportunity to become an Independent Student Advisor for POSS, serving as an academic mentor for students in Dr. Finel-Honigman’s “Pandemics and Globalization. “I really think that even if it was a normal year, I would have still really done POSS because the opportunity is so unique and really gives you this rare chance to interact with students and teachers too. So I think even if I was busy I would have definitely taken more on my plate to do this,” she says. As an ISA, Gayatri hosted biweekly office hours with students to discuss economic concepts and elaborate on course material. She also compiled reading lists for students with articles that analyze the economic impact of COVID-19. 

At a time when young adults feel powerless in the face of the pandemic, POSS aimed to give students a sense of agency. They were some of the first students to engage with the global crisis from an academic perspective, making them active participants in the worldwide search to understand COVID-19 and its impacts. Gayatri points to recent surges of youth activism, particularly around the issue of racial violence, as evidence that high school and college students are willing and able to engage with society’s toughest questions. “We are the future changemakers,” she says, “We are going to be in the workplaces in ten years, we are going to be the generation that already saw a recession and COVID-19 and racial hostility and violence in 2020, and instead of just sitting here and doing performative activism or taking a backseat as an audience, if the tools that we receive in our education could equip us to actually make change toward a better future, we are the people who could actually make that happen.”

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