Transformative Education

To open the session, Michael Parkin, professor of politics and dean of the college of arts and sciences at Oberlin College & Conservatory, presented the following core question:

What is the value of conducting rigorous research as a high school student?

He then extended this question further, posing:

Why would a young person decide to spend ten Fridays (Friday nights or Saturday mornings) of their summer doing research in Pioneer?

Dr. Parkin approached his answer to these questions from the perspective of the multiple roles he holds in his professional life: as a faculty member and college professor, as an administrator, and as a Pioneer mentor, ultimately focusing his responses on the question:

Why do I think doing Pioneer is really valuable?

Dr. Parkin began his comments by explaining that from the perspective of a faculty member and college professor, what makes Oberlin and Pioneer distinct is that the two share a vision of a deep commitment to learning for learning’s sake, to really trying to understand the world, and to using the questions that we’re most passionate about as a basis for learning.

In his role as an administrator, as an associate dean at Oberlin, Dr. Parkin has been able to see the partnership between the two entities, through Pioneer’s work with various agencies on the campus—from the libraries to the computing center to the registrar’s office—and this has given him a very broad sense of how Pioneer operates.

As a Pioneer mentor for the research concentration in politics and media, Dr. Parkin has learned the nuts and bolts of the program and why they’re so critically important to the student experience.

How it Works
Dr. Parkin shared an overview of his Pioneer politics cohort to provide context for his remarks.

The first four sessions include a discussion of the literature with 5-6 students via Zoom over the course of four weeks:

Week 1: Media Effects – the psychology of how the media impacts our thinking on politics
Week 2: Incivility & Disinformation – how people come to believe things that are not true and the role fo the media
Week 3: Digital Politics – techniques and technical ways computers enhance political thinking and political power
Week 4: Online Campaigning – how do candidates use digital tools like Instagram to win votes?

Over the next five weeks, Dr. Parkin meets with students individually. Of this aspect of the role, he shared, “The work that I get to do with individual students from around the world has been fascinating to me, and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s probably my favorite part of doing a Pioneer class.”

Dr. Parkin described two student papers that have resulted from this work that he found particularly compelling:

  • The Narrowing of Election Outcomes – how election outcomes in the United States are getting tighter and tighter all the time and the role that media plays in developing partisanship that allows centrist voters to drop out of the equation and force tighter outcomes.
  • Blame Journalism – how journalists can blame the victim to make a story more compelling to an audience, following the profit motive in the media industry.

What Makes It So Valuable
Next, Dr. Parkin shared his thoughts on the value of the Pioneer research experience:

Individual sessions with professors are very rare and valuable.
In Pioneer you have an individual student, a young person from somewhere around the world, who is meeting with a college professor, one-on-one for five or six hours of their time solely to talk about their research, to talk about the things they’re passionate about. This is an experience that is rare, even in undergraduate settings.

Students are supported in a variety of ways.
In addition to the faculty mentor, there are people at Pioneer who are helping the student with the research, teaching them how to do effective research, as well as the writing center that can help students craft their arguments in a more effective way.

Faculty members’ evaluations of students can be included in college applications.
What’s genius about this is that this is an evaluation of students, positive points and maybe even some things to work on. But then the student can take that evaluation and include it in their application package to a college. A college admissions officer gets to look at this very honest feedback about the student from a college professor who knows what it takes to succeed in college. That’s worth a lot when you’re applying to a college. As opposed to recommendation letters this evaluation cuts through some of the niceties that you see in a recommendation letter. It’s much more honest and much more direct about the skills that the student has and the ability that they may have to succeed in college.

Key Student Motivations
Based on Dr. Parkin’s interactions with students, he’s identified three key motivations that students may have to do this kind of research at Pioneer.

  1. Personal Motivation.
    To learn, to do research, to really dive into their questions.
  2. Interesting Material.
    Two faculty members at Oberlin who reviewed Pioneer research papers this year said the same thing, “These aren’t cookie-cutter classes. These are cutting-edge research classes on really fascinating new topics in chemistry.”
  3. The Opportunitiy to Conduct their Own Research.
    Some students come in with some experience doing their own research, but many don’t. You get to learn how to do primary research with somebody right there beside you, helping you along the way.

How Pioneer Contributes To Students’ College Experience:
Pioneer leads their students to college success, like no other organization Dr. Parkin has ever seen.

  1. As mentioned previously, the evaluation that the faculty member writes on a student’s behalf is like gold.
  2. The rigor of Pioneer sets students up for college success, preparing them for the rigor of college-level study:
    • Students acquire knowledge from the Pioneer cohort experience.
    • Students develop skills in research, how to write papers, how to synthesize ideas and put it all together.
    • Students gain a level of confidence that some of their cohort going into college may not have.
  3. Parents report that the experience contributes to their child’s professional motivation.
    While this may be true, what Dr. Parkin has observed is that Pioneer provides an opportunity to try something new…the opportunity to test the waters in various ways.

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