At NYU Steinhardt, High School Students Experience University Life

Jennifer Cheung, a Bronx Science sophomore, dreaded coming home from school.  As she turned her key in the lock, she would take a deep breath to steel herself for what lay ahead.  More often than not, her younger brother would be at the kitchen table staring out the window unable to focus on his homework.

It was Jennifer’s responsibility to make sure her brother did his work, and one frustrating afternoon, she began thinking about how she might use the methods of scientific inquiry she learned in high school to help him.

Jennifer Cheung, a high school student, worked with Professor Jan Plass at NYU Steinhardt’s CREATE Lab.

“I turned to the web for information about the developing mind of a child, and that’s when a research paper on cognitive training convinced me that a game-based learning approach might be the right way to approach his situation,” Jennifer said.

The paper was written by Jan Plass, NYU Steinhardt’s Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Sciences, and founder of CREATE, the Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education.  Plass’ lab conducts research and designs game that help children, adolescents, and young adults develop cognitive skills.

Jennifer wrote to Plass, and the following summer she landed an internship at the CREATE Lab.  The professor was impressed that not only had Jennifer read his article about emotional design, but she could discuss it as well.

When the next school year began, and Jennifer returned to the kitchen table to help her brother with his homework, she applied some of the methodology she learned at CREATE to his assignments. She turned learning into a game by creating a reading competition; a “renaming” game became a way to learn new vocabulary.  When the siblings went shopping, Jennifer helped her brother work out math problems with groceries.

Today, Jennifer is a freshman at the University of Michigan where she is the recipient of a prestigious engineering scholarship.  She parlayed her experience in Plass’ lab into a research paper about executive functioning that earned her first place at the New York State Science and Engineering Fair and a semifinalist slot in the Regeneron Science Talent Search.  She credits the CREATE Lab with teaching her how to do research; a skill set that she will take wherever her academic journey leads her.

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When high school students come to campus, a passion often alights in the brain.  Last summer, in Professor Catherine Tamis LeMonda’s PLAY Lab, graduate students presented their research on the role of toys in infant and toddler development; a pilot study funded by the LEGO Foundation.

At the end of Steinhardt’s Visionary Studio, high school students participated in a final exhibition in the Barney Commons Gallery.

Gathered around the seminar table were twenty NYU Steinhardt undergraduate and graduate students, a postdoctoral fellow, and a faculty member from NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus.  Surrounding the table were observers, and one, a high school student, told the group that listening to the presentations, which focused on coding video tapes of infants at play, she found herself geeking out.  The student was ecstatic to be in a room where her interest in developmental psychology was researched, discussed, and debated.

Tamis LeMonda calls this “behind-the-scenes” mentoring, though, at NYU Steinhardt, mentoring also takes place through programs geared specifically to high school students.

One of these programs, Visionary Studio: Saturday Art Workshop, is a 9-week program that allows students to infuse issues of social justice into a dynamic art-making practice. Now in its seventh year, the workshop gives students a taste of the contemporary art practices they would encounter in art school.  Last spring teens explored social themes, such as climate justice and the opiod crisis, using an array of innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to express their ideas.

Dipti Desai, director of the program, noted that part of what students take away from their experience is an understanding of how artistic boundaries can be stretched to include what has historically been excluded from artistic creation.

High school students celebrate at their art exhibit.

“These workshops challenge high school students to think outside of traditional artistic media and explore how art can address significant social issues in order to influence society and create social change, ” says Desai, associate professor of art and art education.

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Since its founding in 1890, NYU Steinhardt has been committed to serving diverse communities within the New York metropolitan area.  The school prides itself on offering students a nurturing environment where they can discover the power that higher education has to shape their lives.

The EXCEL at NYU program is a university-school partnership that works to bridge the distance between a private university and a public school in the South Bronx.  Funded by the Teagle Foundation and the Children’s Aid Society, EXCEL offers thirty students at the Fannie Lou Hammer Freedom High School the chance to experience a liberal arts education through college courses in composition, literacy, writing, ethics, and logic. Students are also offered study-skills workshops, tutoring sessions, and a seminar in writing the college application essay.

“The barriers of access to spaces like NYU are shattered the moment a student’s feet touch the college floor,” says David Kirkland, executive director of Steinhardt’s NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “Opportunities arise as these young minds discover the world of ideas and the universe of possibility churning within.”

Students at Fannie Lou Hammer Freedom High School take courses at NYU through the EXCEL at NYU program.

Kirkland is the author of A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men (Teacher’s College Press, 2013), which documents how literacy, language, and identity is shaped by society.  An advocate for educational justice, he sees the pre-college program as greater than the sum of its course offerings.

“It isn’t so much about high school students having access to college, rather, it’s about expanding the scale of opportunities we offer students from vulnerable backgrounds,”  Kirkland says.

Then he muses about “sovereignty,” which Kirkland defines as the right that individuals and groups have to pursue life, liberty, and live on the terms they choose.

“Our high school programs are about far more than accessing college; they are about accessing the possibilities found in freedom,” Kirkland says. “College is only useful when it is used in the service of pursuing freedom; a tool for translating the stuff of dreams into reality.”