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The chemist and his posse

Published: September 7, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


The Posse Foundation is currently in the process of recruiting public high school student leaders to enter Brandeis in Fall 2008 under the Posse program.

Next year's freshman class will include an additional 10 Posse students who were recuited specifically for their interest and ability in the sciences. The Posse program, which has been at Brandeis since 1998, recruits 10 students from New York City high schools to form multi-curltural “posses” at colleges and universities nationwide.

Brandeis chemistry professor Irving Epstein will use a $1 million, four-year grant he received from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a non-profit medical research organization, to fund the science Posse program at Brandeis.

Epstein said he admired the HHMIs willingness to put money towards education, because while research grants are relatively common, $1 million education grants are rare.

The potential pay-off is huge, because one of the issues for this country in the future is whether were producing enough good scientists and if our resource base is limited to white males, were going to be in trouble, he said.

When formulating a proposal for the grant, Epstein knew that there were two things he wished to accomplish if he received it: improve the education in basic chemistry courses and try to increase diversity in science in general.

While the grant will be used for both of these goals, Epstein estimated that two-thirds of the $1 million will go towards establishing the science-oriented Posse program. Epstein became acquainted with the Posse Foundation while working in the adminsitration to bring the original Posse program to Brandeis in 1998.

The [original Posse] program for all its success in increasing diversity and having incredible success in graduation rates, turned out very, very few students in the sciences, Epstein said. Minority students on average tend to go to weaker schools and the level of science education in weak schools is probably even worst than the level of education in English and social studies, [and] by the time they get to be 18 the chance that they are going to want to do science is pretty slim.”

While Epstein said that the science Posse would have a small numerical effect on diversity at Brandeis, he added, “…if we can bring in ten students and theyre successful and visible the way the current Posse students are, this will send the message that Brandeis is a place where students from less traditional backgrounds can be successful in the sciences.

He added, This will serve not just to provide a little more diversity but to act as a catalyst for the sciences at Brandeis and ultimately for all of Brandeis to look like a more comfortable place for people who are not part of the current majority culture.
Once science Posse students are notified in December of their acceptance into the science program, they will begin eight months of pre-college training at the Posse Foundation headquarters in New York City. The instruction will include academic training in problem solving, quantitative skills, as well as life skills, such as time management, leadership skills and things like checkbook management.

The ten science Posse students will come to Brandeis in Summer 2008 for a two-week science boot camp, which will simulate what it is like to be a science student at Brandeis. They will attend lectures, participate in labs, do problem sets and sit for exams.

Once the academic year begins, each science Posse member will be assigned a mentor who will meet with them weekly, in addition to meeting with their fellow science Posse members.

The whole Posse program is based on this notion of peer support and if you have a posse of ten students who are all interested in the sciences then when inevitably a student has a little trouble, does badly on a test and is thinking Well, I m not sure I can do this, then if hes got nine other kids who are going through the same thing, he is more likely to stick it out than if hes the only one and the other nine are saying Im majoring in English or Im majoring in Economics and maybe you ought to try that instead, Epstein said.