Solar powered cars, boulders, and the expiration date of milk—these are just some of the everyday touchstones that Wallace Derricotte (Evangelista Group) connects to the chemical equations on the chalkboard during a recent classroom session for students taking part in the EPiC Summer Experience. Campers are engaged and attentive—and not at all passive. The class progresses as a conversation, with students connecting the lesson to previous classes as well as their own lives. Wallace handles the student-teacher interaction with calm and good humor and it’s clear to an outside observer that his enthusiasm for what he’s teaching is instrumental to making the classroom exchange so lively.
EPiC—which stands for the Emory Pipeline Collaborative—is a science enrichment program offered through the Emory School of Medicine. The program gives high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds a hands-on opportunity to explore careers in the health professions through labs, lectures, and field experiences. For many campers, their engagement with EPiC begins during the school year with Wednesday evening session on Emory’s campus. However, students can also apply and be accepted into EPiC for the summer only.
In addition to familiarizing students with science careers, EPiC introduces students to the college experience. Participants stay on campus for eight weeks, living in the dorms and eating in the dining halls.
After a recent classroom session on reaction processes, I had an opportunity to speak with four campers—Chanaya, Dakota, Omar, and Prynce. Eager to share their thoughts on how well the program approximates college life, the students were quick to hone in on one of the major differences between college and high school: the food.
“We really eat like college students,” said Chanaya.
“I’ve only eaten pizza since I’ve been here,” admitted Dakota.
Beyond the food, students described getting a real sense of what college is like, including being responsible for their own schedules and being a part of a busy community. “We get to experience the hustle and bustle of college life,” said Prynce. “I like that we had a lot of freedoms we don’t usually get at home,” added Omar.
The residential program also allows students to fully immerse themselves in the coursework—which covers a broad range of core concepts, from bonds to reaction processes to chemical equilibrium. “The classes are really rigorous,” says Chanaya. But, she adds, the more you learn, the less intimidating chemistry seems. “Mr. Wallace makes chemistry so much easier.”
Listening to Wallace’s students talk about how much they’re loving math—even calculus—the potential long-term impact of EPiC on students’ comfort level with science is clear. The students speak confidently about possible careers in a broad range of STEM fields. Chanaya wants to be a teacher or a nurse. Dakota and Prynce are both interested in engineering. And Omar is open to a broad range of careers, as long as it has to do with science: “Before, I kind of wanted to do something in an office or something. But now I know I want to do something scientifically related.”
Wallace Derricotte, an NSF GRFP awardee, become involved in EPiC in early 2015 when the administrators of the program approached him to take over for a graduate student teaching EPiC’s chemistry courses. “Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Wallace. “I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life and I relish the opportunity to give back something to the community that has given so much to me.”
The program also supports Wallace’s career goals for after the PhD. He hopes to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate college or university. “Even though the students I’m teaching are in high school, I teach the class at a college level,” says Wallace. “I’m able to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when teaching chemistry. It’s good to get a feel for what teaching methods resonate with students and which ones don’t.”
Atasha Sutton, Instructional Lab Specialist for chemistry and an administrative lead for EPiC, praises Wallace’s approach. “Wallace is an excellent instructor, who made sure students were engaged during his lectures and had a thorough understanding of the material being taught.” Research advisor Francesco Evangelista echoes that praise, connecting the teaching opportunity to Wallace’s NSF award: “Wallace’s NSF fellowship recognizes both his excellence as a researcher and a genuine dedication to teaching and mentoring young scientists.”
Some of the demands of EPiC’s curriculum have given Wallace, who is a computational chemist, an opportunity to get outside his comfort zone and step back in to the environment of a wet lab. During a recent laboratory session with EPiC, he laughed with the students while having a brief struggle during the set-up of a demonstration on reaction kinetics. “I’m a theoretical chemist,” he reminded the students, as they laughed. His willingness to laugh at his own hiccup, however brief, is clearly part of what makes the students comfortable in the classroom and the lab. Everyone is learning.
“The opportunity with EPiC has truly been a learning experience for me,” agrees Wallace. “Every time I step into the classroom I feel sharper and more prepared that the previous class and that’s an experience I feel a lot of PhD students don’t get. The unique opportunity to design, implement, and teach your own course is a valuable skill for anyone looking to go into academia.”