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Pandemic poses unique challenges to Governor’s School

When the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences began planning in 2019 for this year’s session, they could not have anticipated that participants would not be able to be in-person at Carnegie Mellon University for this year’s school.

“As soon as the year before ends, we start planning for the next year,” said Janet Hurwitz, secretary of the PGSS Campaign board of directors.

The state’s Governor’s School began in 1978 as a school for the arts. In 1982, a school for the sciences was added. That school was run for five weeks at Carnegie Mellon.

The Governor’s School was originally run by the state, but in 2009 all of the schools were shut down.

“One day they existed, the next day they did not,” Hurwitz said.

At that point a group of people started working on a way to bring the schools back, she said. When that didn’t look like it was going to happen, Hurwitz said that her son connected her with a group of almuni who were working on that. It was decided to bring back PGSS, particularly with the growing emphasis on nurturing students in the sciences and math.

A non-profit was formed in 2010 to begin the process of bringing the school back. The program reopened in 2013, with about 60 students attending that year.

This year, as the shutdown began due to the pandemic, Hurwitz said that the board wondered how it would be possible to have the school this year. They contacted the director of the program at Carnegie Mellon and he indicated that he wanted to try to hold the school virtually.

“He was going to do all the parts except the labs and when he contacted the professors they said we’ve figured out how to do all that online,” Hurwitz shared.

The students got a box of materials at the beginning of the summer. She added that the kids were “thrilled” because many of their friends were accepted at other programs only to have them canceled because of the pandemic.

Students are eligible to apply in their junior year of high school and attend the school free of charge the summer before their senior year.

They live in the dorms and eat in the cafeteria to get the full college experience.

They study five areas of science — physics, chemistry, biology, math and computer science. One of the five areas includes a lab and they can choose to take electives.

There is also homework with the program just like in college although they do not receive grades for their work.

But, according to Hurwitz, the students are told not to do their homework on their own.

“One of the major foci of PGSS is collaboration,” Hurwitz noted. “So they’re to work together and they’re also to work with the TAs.”

She explained that the TAs are teaching assistants in the traditional sense, but they are also counselors. Many of them are alumni of the program and can’t wait to get back, Hurwitz said.

One of their jobs is to plan social events for the students.

“That’s a second major area of PGSS,” Hurwitz said. “A lot of these (students), who come from across the state are often times, in their home schools, the smartest ones and everybody’s asking them for help or they don’t really have close friends who have the same kinds of interests they do.”

“This is the first place for a lot of them that they find true peers. It’s simply amazing the connections that are made, oftentimes lifelong friendships. Even collaborations that happen through when they go to college and once they’re working,” she said.

“These are kids who think that doing problem sets in physics on a Saturday evening is a really fun activity,” Hurwitz said.

She added that although her interests are not in that area, her younger son, who attended the school in the past is and that’s how she became involved with the group. She shared that he attended in 2003 and that’s how she came to “know the intensity of it and how critical it was for these types of kids.

The last three weeks of the program involve research. The students choose he one they want to do from about 15 different projects.

“They do true research, where nobody knows what the outcome will be,” Hurwitz said.

“They actually will write up their research and present it at a student symposium,” she added. “It’s well beyond what these students can get in their high schools.”

Hurwitz also noted that another important things the kids learn at PGSS is that they may not be the smartest kid in the room.

“As my son tells it, maybe you are the smartest, even at PGSS, in computer science, but you need help in biology. You may be the smartest in biology, but you need help in physics. So they really learn to depend on each other and to depend on each other. That’s a totally new situation for these kids to do a research project in a group and know that everyone will pull his or her weight,” she stated.

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