Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Harvard Business School and Kennedy Science Club: the joys of experiential learning

In the middle of 10th grade, my best friend moved away to India. More importantly, he took his basketball with him. Without it, the loose group of friends I associated with on the blacktops  we all dispersed, like ants suddenly without a home. Within a week, it seemed, everyone had made new friends, and had found new activities.

Newly peripatetic, I circumnavigated Monta Vista's hallways, bouncing from academic court to the fringes of the rally court, from the lunch line to the library. The end of sophomore year wasn't bad: I had my first relationship, and spent most of my free time with her and her friends. But by the time junior year arrived, I was freshly single again, ready to carve a serious niche for myself in the hazy high-school hierarchy. 

Turns out that niche was the classroom. I found solace talking to teachers during their break periods, signing up for tutoring and becoming a tutor, working on assignments tucked away on the second floor of a far-away hallway so that, back at home, I could engage in more worthwhile pursuits, like Super Mario World. My favorite ecosystem was the Chemistry classroom. I was taking Chemistry AP at the time, meaning I was tutoring Chemistry Honors. Twice a week, I walked through the D-building doors, spending 45 minutes helping the underclassman, talking to friends, and turning my head when the occasional cute girl walked in, looking for help.

All this lead-up is a long way of saying that I slowly developed a love for chemistry. And because of that love, I found myself, on a sunny day in January of junior year, sitting on a bench next to the basketball courts, talking to one of my best friends about how we could be "more legitimate" in our extracurricular lives. By the time lunch period ended, we had been bitten by inspiration: it was time to start a science club at our local middle-school.

Call it a budding entrepreneurial spirit: after a couple of brainstorming sessions, discussions with middle school teachers ("Combine our club with the Ecology club? Fat chance"), and shockingly little red tape by the middle-school administration, we started teaching 15 (and, later on, almost 30) precocious minds the science behind chemistry (and physics, and biology). Our application process was quite simple: one page, with 5 questions, the last two of which were, "What are some scientific questions you've always wondered about but haven’t gotten answered? List as many as you can!"; and "If you could be any superhero, what would it be and why?"

We accepted everybody. Our first day of class was Monday, March 20th, at 3 p.m. after school. We came back every Monday, and lectured about titration, the theory of acids and bases, refraction, and how lasers and fiber optics work; we showed them experiments, crushing a can with only air condensation, bending water with static friction, making oobleck, and burning a dollar bill in ethanol. We even attempted the diet Coke and Mentos explosion. It was our hour to mold the minds of impressionable youth.

The weekly lessons had a steep learning curve. Some of our first few meetings were disastrous: the kids wouldn't stay still long enough to listen. Then we realized that repeating a clapping pattern – rhythmically, in that Big-Brother, hypnotizing-spell kind of way  would quiet them down. We started to branch outside passive learning and play games with them; for example, sometimes, we split the rooms into four groups and gave each one five minutes to spit out all the facts they could about gravity, or Issac Newton, or the atom. Winning team was the one with the most correct facts. I remember one Indian kid utterly dominating the competitions. We praised him, quietly, with earnestness, after class. Learning classroom management, I think was more beneficial for me than any of my classes in high school.

My partner in crime let it be known he was the brains behind the operation got into literally every single college he applied to, and ended up turning down Harvard, Stanford, and Yale for a more technical institution. Today, he's in Harvard Business School's 2+2 program and already a successful entrepreneur, running a business starting science camps in India. As a wizened old soul, watching from afar, I look back and like to think that I was present at one of the inflection points on his meteoric rise, sitting with him brainstorming that sunny day by the benches at Monta Vista.

(If you've liked this story, you can stop reading here. The second-half of this post is haphazardly squeezed in, only tangentially relevant, and, despite multiple 're-jiggers,' still a little off kilter. For example, the ending sucks. And not in a #humblebrag sort of way. Like, it doesn't tie up loose ends, and, worse, actually points out flaws in the first part of this piece that only exist because of the context of the second part of the piece. It's also a big advertisement for Harvard Business School, which, as a Yalie, I had qualms about even pushing onto this site. In fact, after I wrote this, I instinctively read the Yale SOM wikipedia page to quell the slight insurgency in my head. That may be why I wasn't able to integrate this next part fully: I don't actually believe what I wrote. Actually, I've made up my mind: I don't. Yo, eff Hah-vahhhd. I guess there's one more point: if you just read this entire paragraph, might as well read the rest, just to see what I mean. Don't say I didn't warn you though...)

Who knows, I might try to join him in 2 years, or 4; right now, I'm trying my best to maintain my "optionality."

For now though, as a sort of tribute to this guy, and because I just spent an hour, on assignment, writing about it, let me give you an unorthodox view on why HBS is so legitimate, U.S. World News rankings be dammed.

Harvard Business School is synonymous with case-based learning: students imbibe business principles through case studies prepared and discussed in class. But an underrated competency of the school is almost as important: experiential learning.

There are three main business school ideologies: lecture-based, case-based, and small-group based. The paragon of the lecture-based school is University of Chicago's Booth School of Business – it's theoretical, purely by-the-numbers teaching. For small-group learning, the Kellogg school at Northwestern is your best bet. HBS, of course, is king of the case.

A fourth ideology has arisen in recent years: experiential learning. Top-tier schools are starting to embrace the simple idea that learning outside the classroom is as important as by-the-book learning. While all business schools tout myriad summer opportunities, HBS is the first school with the experiential component baked in: starting next year, students will be required to have at least one experience working with a company outside the United States. The school actively works on helping you find a company tailored to your interests.

There are many different ways to fulfill the requirement. For example, you could travel to Sierra Leone during winter break and work with a company selling handmade goods to U.S. retailers. It's an interesting real-world question: how does a post-disaster economy develop through the private sector? For research, you'd probably have to delve into the export market, meet with middlemen surveying the goods, and actually talk to the marginalized who work producing the goods.

Or, maybe you care more about the plight of the U.S., HBS can help set you up. Let's say you land an  internship working with the KIPP schools. You might be given the task of determining the best way to mold teacher compensation so that the best and brightest maintain their motivation levels, year after year. After the project, because of your experience, you might decide you want to help save the American education system, and take a job after business school as a director of strategy.

In-the-classroom learning is great. But what differentiates HBS even further from other business schools is its sustained focus on experiential learning – the type that stretches your mind, gets your hands dirty, and opens up doors for career advancement. As in a middle school after-school science club as a multi-million dollar non-profit, the principle is the same: being on-the-ground and tackling meaty, relevant problems is one of the best forms of motivation to really, truly learn.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the inspiration! I'm a teacher (English Language Specialist, ESL for ELL's) at a middle school in Harlem. I've just donated them my 55 gal aquarium and will work with the science teachers to develop a meaningful after school science club. My hope is to help these students change the world for the better, whatever that means to them, through experiential learning...Whatever I deem that will be. I hope to start this in Spring 2012!