Twenty five Grade 12 students from three HWDSB secondary schools have just spent a term abroad. Not overseas, just on the west side of the 403, amid the old buildings, library stacks and labs of McMaster University.
They are part of the pilot McMaster Reach Ahead program in which Delta, Sir John A. Macdonald and Hill Park selected students who had the ability but may not have considered university as their post-secondary destination. Students received a McMaster ID, access to libraries, athletics facilities and more.
With a thematic focus on the study of poverty, students took a three-unit university sociology course weekday mornings at McMaster. This involved two lectures a week with Dr. Sandra Preston, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and Director of Experiential Education at McMaster University, as well as two classes with HWDSB teacher Donna Hale.
Each afternoon, they earned one or two high school credits at their home schools – which gave them a great contrast between secondary and postsecondary life.
“We were curious about what actually happens,” said Kate Elliott, Leadership & Learning Consultant, West Cluster. “Do they apply to post-secondary education? Do they have success in the university course?”
In January, the students were gathering on the fourth floor of Hamilton Public Library’s Central Branch, to finish a research paper for the high school social science course Challenge and Change in Society. They reflected back on their McMaster experience.
“I knew what degree I wanted to take so I took it more for the skills, like ways to research, instead of getting comfortable with university,” said Fahima, in Grade 12 at SJAM. “Essays were quite different because you had to form an opinion,” she added, noting her degree of choice will be New Justice, Political Philosophy and Law.
“I enjoyed it more than high school because I was able to go at my own pace, which I found refreshing,” said Zach from Hill Park. Like others, he found university essay writing was different than high school.
Many students found that high school writing felt more structured, more of a presentation of research and less a position that a student takes after their research. Others were impressed to learn a new style for citations, and to experience the volume of reading required in many university courses.
“It takes away the panic of first year, because you know that you have some of the skillset you need,” added Zach, who also enjoyed having a course syllabus that broke down the weighting given for each assignment, test and exam. “It helps you know what to focus on when you have two things that have to be done.”
Hale, a Hill Park student success teacher, said that independence may have been one of the biggest lessons. Students were required to do their own problem solving, even when it was for something as ordinary as how they wanted the seating arranged during their time with Dr. Preston.
“Some found writing a 10-page essay daunting, and learned that it is the research – not the writing – that takes most of the time,” Hale said. “And when the lecture is going, the speed of the lecture continues whether you are following it at the same speed or not,” said Hale, relating one student’s impression of seeing a different instructor lecture in front of a large, first-year university class.
Elliott said that the staff members involved in the pilot will meet in February to discuss its success and next steps. She said it’s all about transitions, helping students prepare for post-secondary life, and opening their eyes to a new possibility.
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