POSS update: providing team-based academic opportunities to students around the world

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When Director Matthew Jaskol introduced POSS (Pioneer Open Summer Study) as a unique online program for the summer of 2020, it was in response to a need created by COVID-19 and the reality that virtually all in-person summer study programs for high school students had been canceled. At that point, it was clear that there was a need for an additional online summer enrichment opportunity in addition to Pioneer’s highly selective, rigorous Pioneer Research Program. What was not clear was just how great the need was, or how successful Pioneer’s new free initiative would be in filling it. Now the numbers tell a large part of the story: 171 teams involving 1078 students from at least 16 different countries worldwide are participating in POSS.

But the numbers only tell part of the story, because one of the major goals of POSS is to provide an opportunity for international online educational teamwork. And it’s that teamwork that is making the program such an exciting experience for the participants.

The Pioneer academic panel that created POSS was committed to developing a new model of independent study with an interdisciplinary, problem-based, and collaborative approach. After nearly four months’ development work, the panel, in collaboration with four faculty members, launched the timely program, which gives students the options to participate in a structured independent study on one of four themes: Pandemics and Globalization (international relations and economics), Pandemics Epidemiology (international relations and biology), Socio-cultural evolution (anthropology), or Age of Plague (history of science). Given the strong influence Covid-19 has had on students’ lives around the world, many of the themes give students the chance to dive right in and explore Covid-19 from the perspective of different academic disciplines. The POSS faculty members are from Columbia University, University of Notre Dame, Hamilton College, and Stanford University.  

Some of the participating team members come from Turkey, Russia, India, the U.S., China, South Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Canada, Nigeria, Macedonia, the United Kingdom, Macedonia, Kenya, Israel and Uzbekistan. Each team works closely with a school advisor, who is the group’s overall supervisor. The advisors have been as eager to participate as the students. One school advisor from Macedonia wrote shortly before the program began, “I simply can’t wait to start working. Thank you for this amazing opportunity.”

Volunteer “Independent Study Advisors” serve as teaching assistants in the program. These “ISAs” are Pioneer alumni who developed strong research skills as they successfully met the high standards of the Pioneer Research Program in 2018 or 2019. Now they are passing on what they have learned by organizing study materials for the students, providing “office hours” open to students who have questions, and running small group discussions about key topics. The ISAs come from the U.S., India, Turkey, and China. They will be freshmen or sophomores in the 2020 academic year at Barnard, Harvard, UT Austin, UC Berkeley, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern, Duke, the London School of Economics, and the University of Oxford.

At the heart of the program are the individual team members, working together in teams to meet their goal.When the program finishes by the end of August, each team will have completed, working together, a final team paper and presentation. The adventure is already well under way. Guided by their professors, faculty advisors, and ISAs, each team has worked together through online meetings and online chats to discuss their ideas, decide on their project, and figure out how to accomplish their goals. In the process, the individual students are learning not only teamwork skills, but independent study skills and time management skills that will provide long-term benefits both in their academic endeavors and in daily life as well.

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