Inside a science lab at USC, two high school students stared at a preserved sheep kidney on a tray. Looking like a giant chili bean, the organ is roughly the size of a computer mouse.
Wearing blue rubber gloves, April Watts held the scalpel over the specimen, then hesitated.
“Do you want me to slice it?” Jessica Gonzalez asked.
“Go ahead,” Watts replied, sounding relieved.
The teenagers laughed at their squeamishness — mindful of their career choice. Both want to become doctors. They knew the exercise in the lab of Albert Herrera, professor of biological sciences in USC College, was meant to give them insight into the human kidney — a crucial organ that keeps the blood flowing and regulates fluid in the body.
Called “BodyWorks: Human Physiology in Health and Disease,” the course was offered to high school students as part of the annual USC Summer Seminar Series. It was among five USC College courses offered this summer, giving high school students a taste of college academic life. Each three-unit course — also involving humanities and social sciences — can be used toward an undergraduate degree at USC or other major institutions.
“High school students applying to colleges have to show that they’re engaged in learning and that they’re using their summers to develop their interests and passions,” said Susan Kamei, associate dean for advanced and professional programs in the College. “The program also helps students explore various career paths they might be interested in.”
This summer, the four-week program for the first time was open to Los Angeles-area high school students, who commuted to and from campus. National and international students stayed in dormitories on campus.
“It’s very exciting because many parents would prefer their children stay at home while still giving them a rich experience at USC,” said Suh-Pyng Ku, vice provost of continuing education and summer programs.
The program, she said, aims to encourage high school students to think big regardless of the university they attend and major they choose.
“We want to start teaching our younger generation early to be innovative and to think aggressively,” Ku said. “This is what college is about, to think the impossible and to make it happen.”
The program also benefits faculty and graduate students who teach the courses, added Herrera, a longstanding participant.
“What makes it challenging and very enjoyable is teaching this particular audience,” he said. “That’s immensely satisfying for us because we can see how quickly they’re learning.”
Jason Pong, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, who taught the lab portion of Herrera’s class, agreed. He wants to eventually teach both high school and college.
“I’ve always been interested in academic development or even just personal development of youth,” said Pong, who has worked as a high school summer camp counselor. “This is a good opportunity for me to remain in touch with students who are at that critical point in their development.”
Pong’s students were also excited to be participating. Both Gonzalez and Watts are considering studying science in college.
“I want to be a doctor so I thought this class would be a perfect introduction,” said Gonzalez of Hacienda Heights, Calif.
“The class is great,” added Watts of Palos Verdes, Calif. “Dr. Herrera gives his lecture in the morning, then we apply what we’ve learned in the lab.”
In another College seminar, a different sort of experiment was taking place. During “Shaping the Self: The Psychology of Personal Development,” instructor Lauren Ng passed out miniature Twix, Snickers, and Milky Way candy bars to each student.
If students resisted the candy during the entire class, they were rewarded two more bars.
“This was an experiment on impulse control,” explained Ng, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, handing out the bars to students who didn’t indulge.
“I think it would have been harder if the candy was unwrapped,” said one student, biting into his Milky Way.
“Maybe I’ll use M&M’s next time,” said Ng, who later discussed the value in teaching the seminar.
“This is an opportunity to teach a class and structure the syllabus in the way I choose. That's a new experience for me and I really enjoy it.”
Class discussion ranged from family dysfunction to weighty subjects such as suicide and rape to how technology affects everyday life. When asked to consider life without cell phones, some students were alarmed at the notion.
“I can't even imagine,” one said. “I would really be in tears. My phone broke and I went into Verizon. I couldn’t even utter words. I just handed them the phone. I couldn't speak.”
Another teen admitted to carrying her cell phone with her, although the device had broken days earlier.
“It’s my security blanket,” she said, her phone visible on her desk. Another student said her mother wakes her up each morning by calling her cell phone, rather than walking down the hall to her bedroom.
Ng brought the topic back to her lesson that day on impulsivity.
“So what if you can’t stop texting or e-mailing your friends while you’re in class?” Ng asked. “How do you control your impulsivity?”
“I would put my phone on silent or vibrate,” one student said.
“What would happen if you turned off your phone?” Ng asked.
“I don’t know,” the student replied. “I’ve never turned it off.”
In a concluding presentation of the College seminar, “Thinking and Writing about Contemporary Popular Culture,” student Hunter Watt of Rolling Hills, Calif., noted: “In my high school classes, I learn a lot of material, but not necessarily about how it applies to me. Here at USC, for the first time I’ve experienced how to think about applying what I learn to my everyday life.”
The program’s overall objective, emphasized Ku of the Office of the Provost, is for high school students “to learn something new everyday — about the discipline and about themselves.”