Imhotep's Virtual School Program

Project links mentors with high school students across the province

- April 5, 2011

Grade 12 student Nelson Thuku (left) meets his Dal mentor Tosan Ikomi. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)
Grade 12 student Nelson Thuku (left) meets his Dal mentor Tosan Ikomi. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)

Uche wants to be a  pharmacist, Chyenne wants to be a radiologist, Tenesha plans to be a cytologist; other students in the room have similar dream jobs. All these high school students want into a university science program and they all plan to apply to Dal.

Tucked away in a corner classroom of the McCain building on a Saturday, students on lunch break crack jokes, text friends and put their feelers out to meet one another and their mentors in the Imhotep Legacy Program for the first time.

They’re working on a new pilot project that could revolutionize high school science learning for students of African descent. By the end of the year, Imhotep will be giving online science tutoring in math, chemistry, biology and physics to twenty-five African Nova Scotian students in six high schools across the province.

It’s called the Virtual School Program. These are the first participating students and they’re here to meet their tutors face to face.

Creating continual connections

The Imhotep Legacy Program started as a Dalhousie-related community partnership with a singular mission: get more African Nova Scotians into the sciences. For six years, staff visited junior high schools around the province doing science-related activities with teens of African descent.

But program leaders planned to grow a bigger culture of science learning and mentorship for African Nova Scotians. They wanted to fire up student imaginations in junior high, foster it with tutoring in high school, then support it at university through grants and paid work as tutors.

This year, the plan blossomed. In February, Dalhousie announced the TD Black Student Opportunity Grant, worth $1 million in scholarships for students identified through the program to study science at Dal. Now the Virtual School Program is the final piece of the circuit is fitting into place.

Chavasse Bain, Junior Program Officer for the Virtual School Program calls this establishing a “continual connection.”

Minding the gaps

Technology allows the Virtual School Program to skip over the huge geographical problem of reaching out to the many black communities scattered across the province.

“There’s a constant cry from the African Nova Scotian community of the need for tutoring,” says Imhotep Program Officer Kodjo Efu. Now, all students need is an internet connection to meet tutors over lunch hours, after school and evenings.

Dalhousie’s Online Web Learning (OWL) service hosts the virtual classrooms. They use Wimba, a virtual classroom software, to host tutorials. Students can communicate in real time on audio or video, chat with students and tutors and use a whiteboard to write out problems.

This virtual community also bridges issues of social isolation by providing black role models in the sciences.

“The chances of a lot of students going through the education system and seeing a teacher that looks like them is just not there. This program provides that.” says Margo Hampden, a steering committee member who works for the provincial government.

Ms. Bain agrees. She believes seeing is believing. “That’s what this meet and greet is about,” she says. “You want to be able to build relationships with these students.”

Students here get to talk and befriend tutors, program officer and committee members—many of whom have a scientific background—in person.

Ms. Bain wants the students to feel comfortable with their tutors so they feel comfortable asking for help. Tutors understand. Even though all four of them are African students, they felt that unique loneliness of being a visible minority in a mostly white classroom.

Tutor Tosan Ikomi is in her final year at Dal. She applied for the job because she remembers how hard it was to fit in when she first arrived here from Nigeria.

“Being an environmental science and community design student, there were barely any black people in my class, so it was such pressure on me,” she recalls. “You know, it only pushed me more in my studies because it makes me proud that in the midst of all these other students, I can also stand out and I can do well.”

Building capacity

So far Sydney Academy in Cape Breton and Dr John Hugh Gillis in Antigonish are online. Citadel High and Dartmouth High will start soon and Mr. Efu is talking with Cole Harbour High and Cobequid Educational Centre in Truro to join later this spring.

While the pilot serves a small number of students—four tutors will help 25 students—the idea is to expand to reach as many of the roughly 4,000 African Nova Scotian students as possible.

Imhotep looks for students who need that a little bit of extra help to get to that 90 per cent or 85 per cent average. Not high achievers (who don’t need tutoring) or people who are completely struggling (who require more than they can give).

The problem with this is that the middle ground is where most of us live. Consequently, there’s a high demand. Everyone wants free tutoring. Ms. Bain says when she explains to students and parents the need for a  slow and steady approach, most of them understand.

“We let the students know this program is not just for you, but you are going to be helping us develop a program that may be for your younger brother or sister down the line in a few years,” Ms. Bain says.

Imhotep takes the long view. They don’t want to open big and then not be able to supply the demand. Plus, right now they face the practical problem of finding enough black students in sciences to work as tutors. That means expanding as they grow the capacity to expand.

“It’s better to slowly branch out so you can offer a quality program,” Ms. Bain argues. “You want students leaving those sessions understanding what’s been taught.”

Students and tutors create it

There’s still a lot of work to do in the Virtual Learning Program. Getting the system working means not just sorting out the technology, but accessibility issues, tutor-student balance and hours of operation. Everything is up in the air and being tested right now. How these test students use the system helps build the program.

“They’re going to be letting us know what they like or don’t like about the program, to ensure that it works for them and everybody else within their community,” Ms. Bain says.

By June, Mr. Efu hopes to open up the Virtual School to more students.

“We want to try to get to them around that time when they’ll be needing help prepping for those end of year exams so we can try to have some impact,” he says.

This small workshop is the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a buzz in this room on a quiet Saturday. Everyone knows this is important. As Imhotep expands, that buzz will get a lot louder.


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