High School Students Sharpen Critical Thinking Skills at IUP Summer Honors Program

Posted on 7/28/2016 12:30:36 PM

Students at the 2016 Summer Honors Program campCollege-bound high school students from across the country opened their minds through higher learning and critical thinking in the Summer Honors Program held July 10–23 at the Cook Honors College.

“Everything I learn right now is new,” said Ken Zhang, a senior from Queens, New York, who is enrolled in the Mathematics of Counting course. “There are no numbers. It’s all letters. It’s all logic. It’s critical thinking.” 

“We’re learning to apply math to any situation,” said Cora DeFrancesco, a junior from Camp Hill. “We’re focusing on coding and counting. We’ve learned to take the basic skills we’ve learned and we can solve a problem. We’re not solving for x or y. We’re learning about transmitting messages, and that is used in everything we touch today like in phones and computers.”

In the mathematics course, John Lattanzio is teaching coding theory, graph theory, linear algebra, and elements of combinatorial counting. “In the mathematics discipline students are certainly exposed to a variety of mathematical concepts,” Lattanzio said. “However, emphasis is placed on how certain problems can be solved by implementing several different mathematical areas simultaneously in an attempt to solve a particular problem. This exposes the student to not just advanced mathematics but also to problem solving strategies they can incorporate into their own specialty areas mathematical or otherwise.”

There are 145 rising high school juniors and seniors in the program, which serves as an interactive exploration by the students and professor into the course topic.

gloved hands pointing to brain in the lab“Students are exploring questions,” said Kevin Berezansky, the Honors College associate director. “The questions are ambiguous and big. Students are used to answers and confirming them. The Cook Honors College curriculum exposes them to various ways to answer questions.”

Students take two Honors Core courses, one in humanities and social sciences, and one in a discipline-specific class in mathematics, psychology, biochemistry, nanochemistry, journalism and public relations, the Science and Nature of Shakespeare Through the 21st Century, Constitutional law, or WWII in America.

“When they described the Honors courses and that they are discussion based, I preferred a lecture,” DeFrancesco said. “Now that I experienced the classes I can tell you what happened in class. I can actually tell you what I learned on Tuesday. I am learning every class. I was so worried about it before I got to experience it.”

Emma Foster, a junior from Norfolk, Virginia, who is studying English, biochemistry, and sociology, said students in her English class study poetry including lyrics of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

“We’re talking about how poetry relates to us as humans,” Foster said. “We even listened to Tupac. How is that poetry? It is. We’re learning poetry. We’re realizing emotions, beliefs and morals. In biochemistry it’s been fascinating. Dr. Bharathan is extremely knowledgeable. He’ll give us questions and work us to the answer. We understand to a deeper level.”

In the English core course, Instructor Wesley McMasters leads students to try to answer the question "What does it mean to be human?" by reading and writing poetry. 

“We've worked with a variety of poetry and tested the limits of what we mean by poetry and art by working with everything from T. S. Eliot to Tupac Shakur,” McMasters said. “What's most important to me is that students gain an understanding not only of the power of poetry, but of their ability to create valuable work and make meaningful contributions.

“These students are brilliant, active, and unendingly creative,” McMasters said. “Poetry has provided a good means of expression for these students, particularly. By engaging deeply with some tough but fascinating poetry, the students have really gained impressive language to talk about big questions. They've also been able to write some really fantastic poetry that can help point to some really important answers.”

Erin Adams, a senior from East Setauket, New York, is discovering facts about women who served in WWII and how she and others feel about what they are learning.  “It’s incredibly interesting and eye opening,” said Adams, who is taking the course WWII in America Women in the Homefront. “We get to see documentaries. We get to talk about it. We open up our minds. Everyone says what they feel. We talked about what shocks us like female pilots. We’re like ‘What? They weren’t all nurses?’”

Will Durham, a senior from Springfield Twp., Montgomery County, is learning the legalities of the death penalty in Constitutional Law.  “We’re exploring the law at a level we never experienced before,” Durham said. “We’re learning what the law says. We’re examining the Constitution.”

In the biology core course, Bob Hinrichsen leads discussions on the human genome sequence and synthetic life.  “They are to think about things,” Hinrichsen said. “It’s bioethics more than hardcore biology. I take a topic and bring up questions. Even if you don’t like science, it affects you. Science is a part of our lives. We talk about what good came of the human genome sequence in the past 10 years. We talk about the misuse of it. We are talking about how we can synthesize life.”

Hinrichsen said the students discuss their viewpoints based on religion and philosophy.  “Science and religion—can they work together?” Hinrichsen asked. “Almost everything we talk about is not going to have a right and wrong answer. I try to get students to express their viewpoints. Some have a real affinity for technology, and others are leery of technology. I’m really impressed. The level of their discussion is like my Honors College class. The first goal is an appreciation that science is interesting and important to society, and the second is the confidence to talk about things and form opinions.”

painted designs on student armsOutside the classroom, students have opportunities for evening social events. They have participated in star gazing, bird watching, slime games, a campfire at Memorial Park in Indiana, a Nickelodeon obstacle course, Pokemon Go, musical jam sessions, open mic nights, and Twitter poetry.

Started in 1994, the Summer Honors Program offers a diverse experience for students before they have to make their college choice.

“There are no grades,” Foster said. “There is no pressure. In high school, it’s about getting an A. I am interested in biochemistry now, and I’m interested in going to IUP.”

Adams, who visited the campus twice, also plans to enroll at IUP.

“I found this campus a year ago,” Adams said. “After being here for these two weeks this is definitely my choice.”

“The success of the program depends on a lot of IUP personnel and offices,” Berezansky said. “The support this program gets from all the professionals at IUP is amazing. Our growth over the years has been diversity. It’s a diversity of ideas and backgrounds. This enables students to gain perspective.  Seeing the world in a new way through the experiences and expertise of another is at the heart of the program.”

College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Professor holding model of the brain to show SHP class