Splash at Berkeley: A model for interactive, evolving education

Splash at Berkeley/Courtesy

With the recent college admissions scandal being broadcast in mainstream media, it is easy to grow despondent about the exclusionary operations of the American higher education system. Yet in spite of inequitable practices that exist in these institutions, as well as many others, there continue to be models that illustrate the engaging, interactive and progressive work that is being done in our universities. One of these models is Learning Unlimited’s Splash program, an organization that puts on a one-day event taking place across college campuses such as MIT, Stanford, Yale and UC Berkeley. The goal of the event is to ease the transition between high school and college by exposing high school students to college-level critical thinking and problem solving.

The Splash program began in the 1950s at MIT as an 8-week long summer series. As this program expanded to Stanford and other universities, it became a one-day event that developed and attracted a larger audience since it was less intensive and time consuming. Originally, Splash was treated as a training program for high school students, but now the mentors and organizers of this program have tried to shape Splash into a fun, extracurricular educative event, said Benjamin Horowitz, a longtime Splash affiliate and executive director at Learning Unlimited.

As a high school student, Horowitz attended Splash classes at MIT –– this, he said, helped him develop his enthusiasm for physics that eventually led him to pursue a graduate degree in UC Berkeley’s physics department. According to Horowitz, this bridge between high school and university students makes younger students more receptive to Splash.

“It makes the experience a bit more relatable for the students who are attending, seeing someone who’s not like an authority figure,” said Horowitz.

It is cases like Horowitz’s that demonstrate the merits of investing in educational outreach during the critical time of high school. In fact, this outreach is valued quantitatively in research domains like the National Science Foundation, or NSF.

“It makes the experience a bit more relatable for the students who are attending, seeing someone who’s not like an authority figure.” – Benjamin Horowitz

“The (NSF) really likes these programs, and because the science foundation is really into scientific outreach, people like to talk about Splash in their NSF proposals,” explained Horowitz.

The itinerary of the program depends on the campus where the event is hosted. College campuses in more rural city environments like UC Merced, for example, might host guest speakers to demystify the college application process for the students attending the program, as many students in these areas would be first generation college students.

Splash mentors recognize this demographic trend and make sure to tailor appropriate outreach for these communities. Rachel Lawrence, former Splash organizer, emphasizes that Splash is aware of their duty to make this program available to students from diverse backgrounds. As part of their publicity, they make sure to advertise in areas of the community that do not exclude students from, say, low-income households. This inclusive strategy has also been implemented at other college campuses besides UC Berkeley.

“At Yale we tried to bring in more underrepresented minorities and underserved communities that were in the surrounding area. You might have problems like ‘this school can’t attend the field trip because they can’t afford a bus’ and then we had to find a way to get a bus to bring people there,” Lawrence said.

Like Horowitz, Lawrence attended Splash at MIT as a high school student –– it was there that she first got exposure and direct interaction with college students which ultimately changed her perception of college and made it less daunting. To maintain the integrity of genuine engagement in its programming, Splash discourages students from thinking of Splash as an “extra-credit opportunity,” an obligation their parents signed them up for or an accessory for a college admissions application.

“We really emphasize that parents step back and let their kids do what they think will be fun, and I think that is huge in changing how people approach it,” said Lawrence.

This core value of student “choice” permeates the content of the program and in fact is many of the teachers’ favorite aspects of the program. Splash teachers often report that the reason they keep returning to Splash for multiple consecutive years is because they find that Splash provides the unique opportunity to unite motivated, critically engaged students with passionate teachers. In fact, many GSIs at UC Berkeley teach for Splash and enjoy this program in particular because they find that their Splash students are more driven and mentally present since they volunteered to attend the event.

Vyassa Baratham, a head GSI in the UC Berkeley physics department, has participated in Splash for several years now.

“Most of the students I teach physics to are on the pre-med track and don’t really want to be there. At Splash it’s completely different because all of the students choose exactly what they want … It’s very rare that every student is 100% interested in the classes,” said Baratham.

Splash is not only special for the driven students it attracts but also for the motivated teachers.

Many of the teachers at Splash are involved with this program because they see this platform as an opportunity to vocalize an important message to a uniquely captivated audience. Alexander Reed, teacher of “How to Gain Absolute Power in 10 Easy Steps: The Roman Civil Wars and the Rise of Augustus” at Berkeley Splash 2019, says that the design for this class was motivated by a common thread he noticed between his classics classes at UC Berkeley and the contemporary American political landscape. Like many other teachers at Splash, Reed decided to teach this class at Splash because he noticed a lack of discourse on his course content and wanted to demystify this historical connection.

Many of the teachers at Splash are involved with this program because they see this platform as an opportunity to vocalize an important message to a uniquely captivated audience.

“I thought it would be interesting, in light of the political issues that the U.S. is facing right now, to look back to the downfall of the Roman empire and its transformation into this grand, imperial state and the parallels between Caesar and Trump,” Reed explained.

While it’s possible that UC Berkeley students might think Splash is a replica of the DeCal program, many of the UC Berkeley Splash teachers admit they are less inclined to teach a DeCal because of the administrative processes and barriers to entry. Mark Aguila, teacher of several math-based Splash courses at Berkeley Splash 2019, says that Splash is convenient for teachers since the program assistants take care of the logistic administrative work such as organizing class rosters, setting up a classroom and allocating time for the teacher to present their material. Program assistants even work toward funding class projects, such as buying Rubik’s cubes for Aguila’s students. Additionally, Splash is a comparatively lower time commitment for UC Berkeley students who are seeking to teach, which is why many of them value Splash’s liberal programming.

“The whole application process is very open and if there any issues with it they’ll reach out to you, and they can help you improve the curriculum,” said Reed.

The merits of Splash are not exclusive to this program and are certainly available at high-ranking universities and high schools in their yearlong curriculum. What Splash reminds its audiences, however, is how to de-commodify the learning process. It should be voluntary, since genuine curiosity animates intellectual spaces. And perhaps most importantly and cliché, Splash strikes a balance between rigor and creativity reminding us that learning should be fun! It is under these collaborative conditions that Splash demonstrates the value of partnering eager students with visionary teachers –– it is an opportunity for both parties to grow and to bridge the divide between high school and university education.

I think that (Splash is) an approach to education that you might not get in secondary school or higher education,” Lawrence said. “There’s so much standardized testing when you’re going through school –– so there’s a place for that but I think that it’s also important that the joy of learning is taught along the way.”

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected].