Local high school alumni create student-lead teaching effort for kids stuck at home

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This summer will be no ordinary one. Kids will not be loose on the streets chasing ice-cream trucks and flying kites; instead, they will be stuck indoors without a clue as to what comes next for them. The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through society as a whole, and our educational system is still adapting. College campuses around the country will remain closed this fall due to the widespread virus. But this poses a greater challenge to younger students. A local group of college-level student leaders has decided to connect with kids who lack sufficient learning materials for the school year.

            Last week, I caught up with fellow Skyline High School alum Daniel Christensen. Both he and I graduated in 2018, alongside now-UC Berkeley student Jackie O’Hara. Jackie and Daniel comprise two halves of the founding circle behind Academic Pipeline, a student-run non-profit designed to extend educational opportunities to anyone in grades 6 through 12. “I’m not going to claim credit for the inception of this. It was Jackie’s idea originally. She kind of floated the idea on one of the Sammamish Facebook pages, just gauging interest… whether anybody would be interested in having their kids [enroll], or whether the kids would be interested in a program like this,” explained Daniel. “I saw that, and I messaged her… I was like, ‘I think with my background in business administration stuff, among other technical skills, I would be able to help you out on this.’”

            The program itself is young. Academic Pipeline was formed roughly a month ago, and the leadership has been preoccupied with bringing on student-teachers as well as developing more community outreach. Daniel made it clear that they are still focused on the exploratory. “Enrollment wise, I believe we still have a survey out on a couple of platforms, both out of Seattle/Sammamish/Issaquah area and then out of Berkeley where Jackie is.”

            As it stands, middle schoolers and high schoolers have had their academic careers obstructed by a global health crisis. The project mission behind Academic Pipeline is not to bring students to the classroom but to build a virtual classroom for the students. “We’re basically bringing together a bunch of college students who have some kind of independent drive to help share their knowledge or inspire people. We can provide supplemental learning to middle school and high school age students.” As to how the online learning happens, Daniel said there are still things in the works, but, “… primarily, the actual lectures will be given over Zoom.”

            Christensen went on to note that the organization is essentially a charity. “We are not taking any funds out [of Academic Pipeline]. All of the start-up cost is coming out of our pockets and will continue to until we have any possible [supplementation to our costs].” It strikes me that there is zero profit motive behind their operation. What seems like a lucrative business practice is a philosophical pursuit.

            Daniel told me that he spent time at Bellevue College, not wasting much time on details. “I spent four quarters there… After high school, I had to step away from my degree to work on my job full-time.” Before divulging information about his day-job, Daniel made a point to share an anecdote. “So, I spent all of my high school years with a very strong mentor in my life. His name is Carl Greninger; he runs Northwest Nuclear Labs out of Federal Way. I think without him, I probably would not be in the sciences to the degree I currently am, and I don’t think I would’ve been inspired to take the leap and spearhead a program like this. So that’s something that’s been super important in my life, and I just can’t imagine any way it would’ve been without that.”

It looks as though community leadership is vital to the soul of this project. Daniel expounded on this idea and theorized, “Realistically, I had a very specific experience with mentorship. I feel like… I would like to be able to replicate that. Even to affect one single high schooler and get them on a path where they have a drive and love the sciences, I think that’s something I would find very meaningful.”

However, Daniel is not without his qualifications. “I currently work at an aerospace consulting company based out of Washington, D.C., and I run a number of roles. We’re a very small company—I do everything from taxes, to conference management, to research, to analysis… [I] run the whole gamut of professional and administrative tasks.” His background with STEM research and business management makes him an outstanding advocate for education. He went on to add, “I’ve been there for almost a year now. That’s all been super valuable.”

Before concluding our interview, Daniel provided me with one other thing: a larger scope for the future of Academic Pipeline. “I want to emphasize: the current pandemic spurred the idea. But I don’t think it’s going to be discontinued once the pandemic ends. I have seen various reports on how long the pandemic is going to last—we’re here to stay, point being. I’m not an epidemiologist, so I’m not going to give you a number, but I think everything is gonna change. There is going to be a new normal. I think digital learning definitely has a place in that, and if we get a foothold, that will potentially allow us to expand and hopefully affect more young people.”

It remains to be seen if the program yields successful results, yet there appears to be a vast demand for online learning in the upcoming months. The program totals eight student-teachers, some transnational, all of whom will be volunteering time and energy to assist the younglings. Daniel seemed both excited and hopeful for what the future has in store, despite the dire consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak.