What I've Learned at Harvard Summer School

For the past 7 weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to take courses (albeit virtually) at Harvard Summer School. Because of a college preparatory program I’m in, these classes were free to me - trust me, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for each $3,000+ class otherwise. As an aspiring environmental engineer, I took two environmental studies classes: Introduction to Environmental Problems and Solutions and Marine Policy. Before I tell you what I’ve learned throughout my experience, I’ll give a quick summary of what these courses covered.


In Intro to Environmental Problems and Solutions, we briefly discussed each environmental issue that is taking place in our society. These ranged from waste management and climate change to invasive species and disease. Because there had to be so much packed into one summer, most of our learning came from readings - an average of 150 pages per class. Personally, as a slow reader who loves to absorb the information by taking notes, this would take me 8 hours on average. Fortunately, each class was discussion based; though the processor gave some lectures, none would last longer than 20 minutes straight (for a 3 hour class period), as there would be much discussion laced throughout. We had 2 papers (one worth 20%, one worth 25%) and a take-home final (30%), on top of reading check quizzes (10%). Participation was worth 10%. All in all, if any high school students are stressed about taking this kind of course, don’t be! This workload is similar to an honors environmental science course. It’s not too daunting.


Now, in Marine Policy, we discussed the governance systems and policies that currently dominate in resource management. Though I didn’t expect the heavy emphasis on government when I came into this course (I have no idea why), there was so much I learned! We mainly focused on the governance system outlined in The Law of The Sea Convention (often abbreviated as LOSC), but we delved into the main issues surrounding ocean governance, and the common attributes of policies. Anyway, this class had a professor and assistant professor. Though two professors made it feel more intense at times, this class was also discussion based, though there were days that were 90% lecture. We had a response paper (40%), negotiation portfolio (20%) and final (40%) due. Despite the high value that each assignment had to your grade, this class was largely argumentative, meaning there were no tests with right or wrong answers, only papers where you have to argue your case. So again, these courses are not a hard transition.


What I’ve Learned:

Heavy Revisions are Necessary

As you could see, both of my courses were based on writing papers. Though many of us can get by in high school with writing an essay without checking over our work, this won’t slide at the collegiate level. And I’m not talking about editing for spelling errors - after all, technology has our backs with that one. Throughout these courses, each paper has gone through at least a 3 stage revision: one for heavy revising, such as restructuring; one for medium revising, like rephrasing; and one for light revising, like grammar mistakes and repetition. Some people may choose a different system, but skimming your writing for errors certainly won’t cut it. This may seem irritating and tedious at first, but even fantastic writers will be surprised at what they catch.


You Need to Skim for Survival!!

As I mentioned before, I’m a slow reader. Despite this, I’ve always held onto the conviction that, for things to be read thoroughly and understood, you need to read things word for word and take notes. Thankfully, this summer, I’ve learned how impossible this will be! In fact, there are several professors online that have written articles about skimming - you learn the essentials in less time. This being said, please make sure you’re skimming properly. If you find yourself scanning a page without absorbing any information, you’re only wasting your time. Get in the habit of asking yourself questions while reading - this can range from asking what the underlying meaning of the information is, to how you feel about it. Being able to answer these questions ensures that you’re comprehending the reading.


Combating Imposter Syndrome!!

This was definitely the most significant thing I learned: every single person in a class has the same level of intelligence, just in different facets. When first attending class, I was afraid to speak about anything, believing the seasoned biologists and grad school lawyers would judge me for my lack of knowledge. But even if they are able to have more experience, an important thing to remember about these classes is that discussions and the possession of learning in general aren’t about facts, they require intellectual thinking. Though, of course, facts can be supplemental in a discussion, professors and classmates will be more blown away by original ideas. To put it in better context, think of a debate you’ve had in class based on an article you’ve read. Are the people with inspirational comments those who quote the article, or those who consider the article’s information on a deeper level? Though “experienced” classmates can come ready with quotes, anybody can put their own spin on material. This doesn’t have to be the comment of the century either; feel comfortable throwing any idea out there! There’s no such thing as an imposter if everyone is trying to get the same education.


The Professors are Seasoned - and it's a Good Thing!!

Though many high school teachers have had experience in the field that they’re teaching, most have only been teachers! This means getting a teaching degree for biology or history, then going straight into teaching a secondary school to carry out their career. For college professors, this is immensely different. Not only are most college professors seasoned in their field, with a few books or research papers under their belt, but they also have a much larger opportunity to continue research in their field making them far more passionate about their job. This passion definitely shows!! Of course there are some crabby professors, but during my courses, the first thing I noticed was how excited my professors were to engage in discussion about the coursework. In fact, they supplemented their answers with anecdotes, making discussions all the more engaging.


Pull Some Passion From Your Subjects!!

As indicated by taking two environmental studies courses, I want to major in environmental studies (well, environmental engineering, but who wants to take a virtual engineering course?). Because I am interested in the environment, it wasn’t difficult to become excited in my environmental problems and solutions course - and I encourage anyone to take a course that actually has interest to them, as it will be much easier to take, even if the coursework is difficult. But you won’t always have the pleasure of taking courses you’re directly interested in. When it comes to this situation, it's best to look at the course in a light you’re most familiar with / passionate about. For instance, though the marine policy course was about 90% governance and 10% marine science, I was able to focus on the science part of it, and expand it until it seemed to blanket the talk about governance systems. In my mind, all discussion of politics turned into ways that the marine ecosystem would be impacted by policies. In other words, instead of “what governance system?” questions turned into “what does the ocean need?” This shift is small, and may seem obvious to some people, but it can make a large difference. An example of a far larger difference can be a mathematician disinterested in writing. Analysis can be thought of as a proof, and prose as an expanded expression. Going in a reverse direction, with writers being disinterested in math, there can be a reverse thought process. Equations can go through analysis, with each number, letter, or sign being an added word. Each person can also have an individualized way to become passionate specific to their personalities.


Managing Time Successfully!!

Admittedly, I have to work a bit on this one. Writing papers, reading for homework, and trying to get ready for the college process are quite a few things to juggle at the same time. This led to me disregarding a few things, such as the college preparation process and summer homework. Often, I got so wrapped up in trying to perfect papers (revising is good, but nothing can be perfect), and reading thoroughly (I didn’t start skimming until the last two weeks), that I believed there was no way I could work on anything else. This wasn’t a good mindset, and only led to a waste of time over-working on an end product that likely would have been the same. Though it is good to prioritize classes, know when to stop obsessing and move onto another task/project/time for yourself! Usually, making a rough draft of a 5 page paper should never take more than 5 hours, and editing shouldn’t take more than 2-3. If you feel like you need to continue, but you can’t directly identify what to change, stop and move on!


If you’ve taken an online course this summer, please comment below about what courses you’ve taken and what you’ve learned from them! Anyone can also comment with any questions or reactions to the article - we would love to talk with you!!


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