On a Thursday morning leading into winter break, 10th-grade students from Paul Robeson High School huddle in a Penn Medicine classroom, teamed up in groups of three to five to answer the timed questions flashing on a screen. “Which of the following compounds is a solvent?” “Which of the following is a covalent bond?” Students whisper answers to each other—no sense helping the other teams —and discuss the questions with Penn undergraduate mentors, who give the Robeson students confidence and the occasional hint.
It’s Quizzo, biology-style, and a lot is at stake. This is the last day in this class for the Robeson students, a chance to show off their hard work. The top-scoring team gets first pick of the prizes, sweet treats and knickknacks—notebooks, games, and fidgets—but the game also prepares the students for the biology Pennsylvania Keystone Exam, an end-of-term assessment administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The students from Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia are the 11th cohort to participate in Everyday Neuroscience, an Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) course run through Penn’s Neuroscience Department in collaboration with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. With a curriculum that’s half based in biology, half in basic brain function, the course is designed to complement what the Robeson students are learning in their regular coursework, while promoting a lifelong interest in science and boosting their test scores on the state exams.
“Robeson University-Assisted Community School programming, including ABCS courses, are rooted in respectful, mutually beneficial partnerships,” says Cory Bowman, associate director of the Netter Center. “Penn faculty and Robeson teachers work together to develop innovative and effective ways to improve teaching and learning. The students enjoy learning together in inclusive classrooms that incorporate hands-on and inquiry-based approaches.”
Everyday Neuroscience is one of 13 ABCS courses that have been offered at Robeson. They help prepare the students for the Keystone exams in all three subject areas (also including literature and algebra) and the partnership has helped “every student in the school improve their academic performance,” says Richard Gordon, Robeson’s principal.
Paul Robeson High School has outpaced state and district student performance averages on the Keystones for the past five years, Gordon says. “Each year we have seen a steady increase in our student performance scores on the Pennsylvania Keystone Exams, including having the highest growth rates—a metric for gauging a school’s students’ score on the Keystone relative to their predicted score—of any high school in the District last year,” he says.
Lori Flanagan-Cato is an associate professor of psychology and co-director of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. She created the course in 2016 and has offered it annually since then.
“Like many Philadelphia high schools, students at Paul Robeson High School are mostly Black, mostly from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and have experienced a very low-resourced public school education,” Flanagan-Cato says. The wraparound support in math and literacy will make a bigger impact, she says.
Some of the students didn’t receive a middle school science education, so there’s a lot to catch up on, she says. “There’s no question, in my experience, that these students can learn this stuff,” she says. “They just haven’t had a chance yet.”
She and the Penn students design activities—like mini-laboratory experiments or the Quizzo game—that are hands-on and promote conversation. “When people are only listening, it’s hard to stay engaged and absorb new information; but if you experience it in a physical way, with your senses, then it helps you remember in the long run,” Flanagan-Cato says.
“It was the lessons for me,” says Fatim Mansour, a Robeson student from West Philadelphia. The Penn students go out of their way to explain the concepts, and translate them in a way she can understand, Mansour says. Before, she would write down and memorize facts in school without really understanding their significance. Talking about science in small groups is “better than just hearing,” she says.
“The work that Penn students, faculty and staff do in partnership with our team makes a real difference in the lives of our students, particularly helping us to close the significant academic achievement gaps with which our students enter our high school,” says Gordon. “The Netter Center brings incredible resources to our students, and to our building, as well as graciously inviting our students onto Penn’s campus to support our students' educational journey. I do believe what we have been able to accomplish could be replicated and expanded throughout the City of Philadelphia. I look forward to the continued growth of our very strong partnership.”
Throughout the semester, Penn students were encouraged to make modifications to the course material and use what they learned about their mentees to tailor engaging and dynamic classes. “We got to use what we knew about biology and the course’s material and adapt it in a meaningful way,” says Emerson Blutt, a fourth-year neuroscience major from New York City.
Many of the 24 Penn students taking the ABCS course say they are driven by the idea of connecting science with service. “We learned a lot from the students and Dr. Flanagan-Cato, but it was also a great opportunity to feel like we were doing more than just studying for ourselves,” says Blutt.
“It’s fulfilling to see the impact our work has on the [high school] students,” says Sizzy Lawton, a fourth-year health and societies major from Flourtown, Pennsylvania. “This has been a class I consistently look forward to each week because we really get to know the students and better understand their learning styles for designing lesson plans.”
The course also provides the Robeson students with a window into college life, says Flanagan-Cato. “They, a lot of times, don’t have any social connection for higher education. Part of the time we spend informally, telling them a little bit more about college, and what college is like,” she says.
Flanagan-Cato says she also gets to see a new side of the Penn students, who can be serious and ambitious. In this course, “they get to use their science knowledge and have fun with it,” she says.
When asked which class was their favorite from the course, Jaylynn Torres Green, a Robeson student from West Philadelphia, says the exercise on labelling neurons of the eye. “We’d learned about different cell types at school, but seeing what they looked like was really cool and it helped me better understand the differences,” Green says.
At the end, the students passed around notes, complimenting each other on their achievements during the course. “You’re strong, wise, and smart,” Mansour wrote to herself. “Keep going.”