Underserved high schoolers now thriving in college credit Cornell program

One year after underserved high schoolers took a Cornell-developed course to get ready for college, the students appear to be thriving, and the leader of a national education initiative says two Cornell faculty members should be considered “academic heroes.”

Last spring, more than 100 high school seniors in New York and several other states participated in an online data policy and analysis course – Big Data for Big Policy Problems. The students explored pressing policy issues such as income inequality, racial justice, and climate change through economic and sociological lenses.

The course – delivered by eCornell, the School of Continuing Education (SCE) and the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab (NEEL) – was devised by Maria Fitzpatrick and Matthew Hall, both professors in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. It is being delivered again this spring.

“The power of the Big Data for Big Policy Problems course has been game changing,” said Leslie Cornfeld, CEO and founder of NEEL. “Maria Fitzpatrick and Matthew Hall have become nationally recognized academic heroes, leveraging their talents for social impact on behalf of Cornell, and our nation.”

Donovan Blount was one of the seniors in the 16 high schools that participated in the program. Blount is now a freshman at the University of Buffalo and said the Cornell course was transformative.

“I saw what I am capable of when I am challenged and give it my all, what I can achieve,” Blount said. “That’s the power of the Ed Equity Lab courses. For students in schools where opportunities like this are rare, such opportunities are paramount to understanding our potential.”

Blount and the other students earned college credit as they learned how big data is used to address policy problems such as education equity and COVID-19. They also learned the mechanics of attending college – time management and how to interact with faculty through office hours and lab sessions

“I want to thank Cornell, and professors Hall and Fitzpatrick, for stepping up and offering this course through the Equity Lab,” Blount said. “I am now in college with a strong, merit-based scholarship, intending to be the first in my family to graduate. That’s how change happens. Opportunities like this are crucial.”

“Teaching Big Data for Big Policy problems to the NEEL students last spring was the most rewarding teaching experience of my career,” Fitzpatrick said. “Seeing students like Donovan thrive as they enter college knowing how successful they can be is even more rewarding.”

Cornell is one of 11 leading universities that partner with NEEL, a nonprofit that seeks to level the playing field for high achieving high school students in historically marginalized communities. The organization’s goal is to reach 10,000 students across the U.S. by the end of this year.

“Cornell University is a national leader in advancing equity and opportunity – pioneering new models to help students advance and demonstrate college readiness, to admissions offices – and themselves,” Cornfeld said.

Developed with support from the College of Human Ecology, the Big Data for Big Policy Problems course is getting national attention. Blount and other students described the benefits at the annual SXSW EDU conference for education innovators in Austin, Texas and received a standing ovation after their presentation.

“We designed this class for Cornell students, and to see high schoolers like Donovan thrive is a testament to Cornell’s commitment to ‘any person…any study,’” Hall said

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