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Teens sharpen analytical skills in social sciences

Trojan helps local high school students understand global issues, building her own skill set in the process

USC Dornsife junior Katie Bolton
Katie Bolton has participated in a USC Dornsife service learning program many times. (Photo/Mike Glier)

USC junior Katie Bolton stood before a classroom of high school seniors at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, flanked by two other undergraduates.

“What are some of the reasons people immigrate?” she asked the class.

A girl shyly raised her hand. “Better economic opportunities?”

“Fleeing from a conflict or war,” called out a boy.

“Right, good ideas,” Bolton nodded.

After getting the students’ attention, Bolton introduced a teaching framework called “Four Worlds” designed to help them hone critical thinking skills in social sciences.

“Basically, the point of it is to break down a really complex issue into more understandable parts,” she explained to the class. The lesson is part of the Teaching International Relations Program, or TIRP, offered at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

A seasoned volunteer

Bolton is a longtime participant in the service learning program. In teams of three, undergraduates go out to a local high school classroom four times over the course of a semester to teach interactive lessons on complex global issues.

High school teachers choose a theme for these lessons, with topics ranging from ethics and human rights to globalization, climate change, and competing perspectives and election issues, a popular selection this fall. As part of their teaching, undergraduates use a combination of analytical tools, case studies and activities drawn from the Activities Database at the Center for Active Learning in International Studies (CALIS). They also receive feedback on their lessons from partner teachers.

Bolton, a double major in NGOs and social change and environmental studies, helped to edit and compile the curriculum for the newest section on climate change when she worked in the office of Steve Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs. Lamy, a believer in the idea that “you learn best by teaching,” spearheaded the program at USC in the 1990s.

“After helping with that project, the following semester I decided to volunteer and see what TIRP was all about,” Bolton said. “I’ve been doing it every semester since. It’s a fulfilling thing to do service-wise, working with students who are pretty similar in age and getting to see the wheels turning in their minds.”

Getting involved outside the classroom

As with the TIRP curriculum, Bolton has a decidedly interdisciplinary focus in her studies. When choosing schools, the East Texas native ruled out a few of the other top universities in California.

“What really drew me to USC was the fact that there were so many interdisciplinary majors. I felt like I would have an easier time finding the types of opportunities I was looking for.”

In addition to TIRP, Bolton is involved with a few campus organizations, including the USC Trojan Debate Squad and Environmental Core, an environmental activism club. This semester, the political science minor is also interning in the district office of state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Calif.).

“I’m interested in politics in general and I wanted to get experience in an office with an elected official,” Bolton said. “And Sen. Mitchell is really dedicated to the issues that are of concern to her constituents.”

Bolton is part of the first class of USC Dornsife’s Fisher Fellows Program, which allows students with financial needs to participate in enrichment opportunities across the college. She enrolled in a Problems Without Passports course that allowed her to travel to Palau and earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund award to support the endeavor.

A mission of relevance for the community

CALIS Director Teresa Hudock said that TIRP provides an excellent opportunity for students to refine their skills in presenting, teaching, engaging an audience and organizing ideas. This semester, CALIS is supporting 39 teams of TIRP undergraduates teaching at a variety of public, charter and parochial high schools in Los Angeles. Volunteers come from majors across USC Dornsife, not just those studying international relations.

The primary mission of CALIS is to be relevant to the community, Hudock said, and being able to do this through USC students is perfect both for them and for local youngsters.

“What I love about what we do is that we’re enabling [high school] students to really analyze issues,” Hudock said. “That’s what’s unique about CALIS materials and strategies. I consider what we’re developing with analytical tools is a paradigm shift in education. TIRP is this wonderful laboratory and USC students are helping us create the paradigm shift.

“That’s the bigger picture of what TIRP is — service learning and community engagement, but the participants are also part of something bigger.”

Bolton, a first-generation college student, has appreciated being part of the bigger picture at USC and beyond.

“At USC there are so many opportunities in every way you can imagine: scholarships, service, organizations,” Bolton said. “I never worry about ‘what am I going to do next?’”

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