College Prep students present their research posters during the annual STEM symposium. Credit: Courtesy The College Preparatory School

The College Preparatory School doesn’t just prepare kids for college—it prepares kids for life. Through its dynamic and innovative programming, College Prep, a private high school in Oakland, is providing students with opportunities to actively engage with the world beyond its walls. Two of the school’s most popular courses offering such opportunities are its science-based STEM program and the humanities-based STOak program.

The STEM program was created in 2013 by Dr. Eva Campodonico, a College Prep alum and current head of the school’s science department. Dr. Campodonico wanted to provide students with an opportunity to learn what it’s really like to be a scientist by providing research internships at local labs. But to get the most out of those internships, she knew that students would need, in her own words, “substantial structured training” beforehand. 

That’s why, prior to their internships, College Prep students spend the spring participating in intensive boot camps where they study the ins and outs of experimental design, conduct academic literature reviews, lead journal clubs, and discuss human rights in the context of STEM. They also attend guest lectures by local and international scientists. In the fall, after their internships, students switch gears and work on crafting formal research posters and research talks, which they present at the annual STEM symposium every November.

After running the STEM program for six years, Dr. Campodonico handed over the reins to Alden Blair, associate program director of the Master’s Program in Global Health at UCSF’s Institute for Global Health Sciences, who joined College Prep’s science department. Dr. Blair has since expanded the program to include internships at UC Berkeley and UCSF, and at private and nonprofit companies in the Bay Area. The STEM program now offers opportunities to work at labs studying a wide range of issues including pharmaceutical interventions for neglected tropical diseases, genetic factors associated with obesity, and the impact of estrogen on autism. 

For students interested in social justice, College Prep offers another highly innovative course: Social Transformations Oakland or STOak, for short. STOak is the brainchild of Dr. David Kojan, assistant head and academic dean of the school. Kojan created the program six years ago because he wanted to get kids “into our broader Oakland community.” 

Like STEM, STOak centers around a summer internship program. Trinity Thompson, director of experiential and community-based learning, co-runs the program with Dr. Kojan and places students over the summer at various local organizations like the Justice Reinvestment Coalition, 350 Bay Area, and the Oakland Mayor’s Office. These organizations not only allow students to learn firsthand about issues like incarceration, climate change, and homelessness, but enable them to participate in creating change in these areas.

In addition to their internships, students learn about the history of social justice movements in Oakland and take on class projects. Students are currently looking into serving as poll workers and compiling voter guides for the upcoming November election. Earlier this year, they worked on an oral history project in which they interviewed Oakland residents who are at higher risk for COVID-19—including homeless people and recent immigrants—about how the pandemic affected them.

COVID has, of course, affected the teaching of both the STOak and STEM programs. Since these programs center around community-based work at local nonprofits and labs, they’ve had to be reconfigured to allow students to participate from home. 

Fortunately, both programs have proven highly adaptable. Thompson found the organizations STOak partners with to be “extraordinarily responsive” in figuring out how to re-imagine the internships so they’d work online. Likewise, many of the labs Blair partners with have adapted, in this case by switching their focus to COVID. The change, said Blair, has allowed students an opportunity to not only observe the devastating effects of the disease but to “have a hand in fighting it.”

Whether the internships stay online next summer remains to be seen. What’s assured, however, is the ongoing success of both programs and College Prep’s deep commitment to educating its students in new and innovative ways that enhance not only their learning but also the communities to which they belong.

This sponsored article was authored by Julie Anderson. It was commissioned and paid for by The College Preparatory School. The news and editorial staff of The Oaklandside had no role in the reporting of this story.