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Students and parents attended a MAST orientation on Saturday, January 26.
Students and parents attended a MAST orientation on Saturday, January 26.

MAST Sets Sail

For many teenagers, Saturday morning is a time for soccer, basketball—or maybe just catching up on sleep. But over the course of the next three months, students from Philadelphia-area schools will be spending their Saturdays in Haverford College’s science labs creating aspirin, exploring the physics of rockets and pendulums, participating in shark dissection, and discovering how yeast metabolizes sugar to make food.

They are all taking part in Haverford’s MAST (Mentoring and Student Teaching) program, which runs from February-April and provides laboratory experience and writing tutorials for middle and high school students who come from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Haverford students are responsible for preparing the course curricula, devising and teaching the labs, and working one-on-one with the younger students. This year, 50 undergraduates have signed on as tutors to 63 students (one Haverford student per two tutees) hailing from 30 area schools, including Hill-Freedman Middle School, Strawberry Mansion High, and W.B. Saul High School of Agriculture.

MAST was the brainchild of Emeritus Professor of Biology Slavica Matacic, who saw the program as a way not only to provide tutoring to local children, but also to reinforce what Haverford students were learning in their own classes and labs. Assistant Professor of Biology Andrea Morris, who graduated from Haverford in 1991, was present for the program’s inception: “(Matacic) saw what we struggled with, and thought this would be a good way to make us stand up and talk about science.”

Before she became involved with MAST, Morris had never considered a career in academia. “I thought it would be horrifying to stand up in front of a classroom and profess something.” But being a part of MAST reminded her what she loved about science: discussing new ideas, testing theories.

“I loved research and being in the lab, but being able to share my research made it more exciting,” she says.

Today, as a professor at her alma mater, Morris finds her classroom style influenced by her MAST experiences. “When I design new courses,” she says, “I try to let my students take ownership of the class, and I invite them to tell me what they loved about previous classes.” She is also buoyed to see her own shyer students participating in MAST and, as a result, speaking up in class and leading discussions.

Recently, Haverford has taken ownership for the program’s budget, which had previously been covered by a grant to the College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “What’s important,” says Associate Professor of Biology and MAST Faculty Advisor Rob Fairman, “is that now the College has guaranteed that this program will continue in the foreseeable future.”

“It’s in recognition of the fact that MAST is part of the fabric of the College,” adds fellow Faculty Advisor Kate Heston.

MAST is unique among science programs in that the writing component is equally as important as the lab experience. The middle and high school students write short essays based either on their own lab work or a topic they investigate via the Internet. Their work is published in a booklet at the end of the program.

“The writing component of MAST is wonderful in that it extends the students’ overall enrichment,” says MAST student coordinator and tutor Sarah Blackburn ’09. “Aside from helping them with the main paper, we can also look at homework assignments, college essays, and the like to help students improve their writing as a whole. We are able to get a good idea of the students’ strengths and weaknesses and can help them where they specifically need it, be it difficulties with spelling and punctuation or with forming a more cohesive argument.”

This is Blackburn’s first year working with MAST, but as a student in Haverford’s education concentration working towards her English certification, she’s excited to apply what she’s learned in class to the program. “I am sure that MAST will help me with my study of education by giving me the chance to work with a small group of students while also reflecting on my own writing skills,” she says.

-Brenna McBride

The path that leads to the Gardner Integrated Athletic Center and Whitehead Campus Center. The GIAC opened in 2006.

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