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Empowering with Education
by Anirudh Srirangam

It’s a feeling we’re all too familiar with- the feverish search for a way to make our summers “productive.” I spent the Summer of 2010, like many of my peers in the College of Chemistry, conducting laboratory research. My internship that summer at Genentech was everything I had wanted at the time: a sensible application of my undergraduate education that was fun and presented me with some new topics in chemistry that I was intrigued by. I returned to Berkeley that fall, satisfied and ready for new challenges.

My research experience was positive, but I recalled a promise of sorts I had made to myself at the beginning of college- I wanted every one of my summers in college to provide me with entirely different experiences. In this spirit, I applied to be a teacher with Breakthrough Collaborative, a national nonprofit devoted to preparing high-achieving middle-school students, most of whom are of color and from low-income families, to enter and succeed in college-preparatory high school programs. The main component of Breakthrough’s mission is a 6-week academically rigorous summer school program in order to prepare the students for the upcoming school year.

I was placed at Breakthrough’s site in Austin, TX as a 7th grade science teacher, with a curriculum that emphasized life science and body systems, and touched on the question, “What’s Engineering?” The site served 250 students in the 7th through 9th grades who were performing at very high levels in public and magnet schools in the Austin Independent School District.

Among the myriad aspects of the American education system that we can call “broken” is the fact that several schools urge their teachers to “teach to the test:” lessons that require students to memorize and regurgitate just enough material to succeed in standardized testing. Breakthrough, however, recognizes the limitations of this type of education, and as a teacher I was challenged by my superiors to work relentlessly on lesson plans that would in turn challenge my students.

As a student of science, I decided that the theme of my 6-weeks with the students would be to ingrain in them a true passion for science. To my surprise, many of my students professed on their first day of class that science was indeed their favorite subject, and several indicated that they aspired to become engineers, doctors, and biologists. Presented with this ideal educational atmosphere, I decided that I would set an even higher goal for my students: to immerse themselves in scientific communication. Presenting students with scientific terminology tested their pronunciation skills and it was often too easy to call the duodenum or the trachea, “that one thing in your body.” Furthermore, I had learned that in many of their schools, my students were never incentivized to internalize these scientific terms and use them in their classes. Their teachers provided them with tests with word banks where they could match terms and definitions they were already given- a prime example of teaching to the test. There were no such short cuts in my class. The students were asked to present questions and answers using the proper terminology with me and their other classmates.

I think the character of my education here at Berkeley is what made me harp on this idea of the communication of science. In my College of Chemistry classes, my peers are not afraid to pose challenging questions to professors. I was inspired by the high level of scientific communication and thought in which we immerse ourselves here at Cal. As a result, I was desperate to impart that wisdom with my students. I left my summer in Austin with an immensely gratifying feeling, satisfied that I had done my best work in helping my students approach science in a very new and unfamiliar way. Science is a powerful tool that, as some of the brightest students in our nation, we can utilize to educate and empower.