Asma Mothana originally wanted to use the summer before her senior year to get a job, possibly at a law firm. Instead, she’s taking an open-study research course on a subject she was already thinking a lot about: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like learning about it in the open study dives deeper into what’s actually happening” with the pandemic, says Mothana, who attends a local public school in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We tend to make it about the prison that’s keeping us home but we’re not really learning about what its real effects are.”
Mothana isn’t earning any money this summer, but at least she isn’t spending any either. The open-study course is a free offering from Pioneer Academics, a public benefit corporation better known for its selective online research program, which pairs high school students around the world with mentors. Students do inquiry-based research, write a paper and can even earn college credit through a partnership with Oberlin College.
While there’s a tuition for the research program, Pioneer often waives it for students who demonstrate financial need. As jobs and other summer opportunities evaporated as COVID-19 swept the globe, the program saw a 300 percent spike in applications, with many requesting financial aid, says Matthew Jaskol, Pioneer’s founder and program director. “We decided that with the combination of this increased demand, and for students who are seeing themselves stymied, we’d have to create a program that would be extremely scalable and 100 percent free.”
The new summer program groups teams of students into one of four tracks based on interest: pandemics and globalization, epidemiology, the history of pandemics, and socio-cultural evolution, which looks at what happens to societies when big things change. Unlike the research program, this offering doesn’t pair every student with mentors. Instead, a handful of teams work directly with a professor who acts as an expert mentor during regular Zoom calls.
But the vast majority of the 145 teams, composed of more than 900 students, are self-paced. They follow along with the synchronous, or live, teams and set their own schedule, deciding for example how many weeks to spend working. These self-paced teams watch recordings of the professor and pair up with teaching assistants for about five live sessions—a necessary alteration to make the program free, given that mentor professors are paid by Pioneer for their time.
“This is not a research program,” Jaskol clarifies. “It’s free. It is not accredited. But it’s designed on a structure where students can pull together a team of five to 10 other students and dig into a perspective on COVID-19.”
Specifically, Mothana’s team is on the pandemics and globalization track, charting unemployment figures and studying how the issue impacts groups of people differently. After losing out on her summer job, and faced with an uncertain future, it’s an issue that hits close to home for her.
“When you look at the unemployment rates, you get scared,” Mothana says. “You spend almost your whole life in school, and then when you come face-to-face with the real world, there isn’t really a world for you to face anymore.”
Last month, Mothana spent about five hours a week on research and in meetings with teammates, who are all classmates or friends of friends. But her team is planning to double their workload to finish their final research analysis by the end of August. (She is also working on a separate project on ethnic conflict for Pioneer’s credit-bearing research program.)
Even though the quarantine has curtailed most of their usual engagements, it can be tough to get everyone together for group Zoom calls outside the scheduled office hours with teaching assistants. Each team decides when and how often to meet, and that kind of self-organization can be a challenge.
“It’s hard to find a time that fits with all of us,” she says. “I feel like if there were specific times given by the open study program, maybe it would make the rest of my team more committed. You can’t really get out of something that you have to do.”
Overall, the quality of work has been very high, says David Veselik, a biology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who is working with students in the pandemic epidemiology track. The five teams he’s working with are studying the structure of the novel coronavirus and each is tracking its spread in a different country—the U.S., Sweden, China, Brazil.
Instead of lectures, he hosts spirited discussions with teams as they prepare their finals analyses and presentations. “I told them from day one, I wanted this to be an active, engaged discussion about these topics,” Veselik says. “As you know, the models and the impacts are changing by the week, by the day. So just to have that kind of discussion and see the type of work the students are doing has been really impressive.”
That’s not to say students don’t need a bit of guidance—they are still in high school, after all. Jon Sky, a teaching assistant and veteran of the Pioneer research program, says he’s spending about 10 hours a week talking to students, helping them format their papers and creating outlines and summaries from the live classes led by professors, which are recorded and shared with teams working through the material at their own pace.
During office hours, students spend most of their time asking questions about the material covered in these recorded classes, which can last up to 90 minutes. They also look for help in formatting their papers and organizing their work. “Considering a lot of them are communicating only online, I could imagine it’s a little difficult to coordinate everything if you have to divide up work,” Sky says.
At the end of the program, students turn in a research paper summarizing their findings. The assignment isn’t held to the same rigorous standards that those in the research program are held to but there are a few baseline requirements. Each paper has to have an introduction, a conclusion and at least three pages of research.
But that’s just the minimum, and some students may go above and beyond because of their interest in the topic, says Jaskol. “There’s going to be a certain number of students that don’t necessarily finish,” he acknowledges. “If you’re going to do something, it should be to whatever level you want to bring it to. Our goal is to do something that harnesses your interest and curiosity, not because I told you to do it.”