Commonwealth Honors Academy challenges teens to explore and grow

An intense learning experience that involved 83 rising high school seniors, the academy attracted participants to MSU from various parts of Kentucky, and also Missouri, Illinois, Massachusetts and Tennessee.
by Constance Alexander |

(Editor’s Note: Constance Alexander teaches at the Commonwealth Honors Academy.)

It was barely 9 a.m. on a spectacular summer Monday. About 14 teenagers sprawl on couches and slump in chairs in a stark meeting room on the Murray State University campus. A few chat quietly. One young woman is swaddled in a blanket. Some page through notes or a book.

No one is texting because students attending 

MSU’s Commonwealth Honors Academy are expected to be present, willing, and able to participate fully in the intensive, three-week experience. Retreating into the cyber world is restricted during the day, so they communicate with each other face-to-face, asking questions, actively listening, sharing ideas. Everything they do is a steppingstone that paves a path toward “Growing into Ourselves,” the theme of CHA 2021.

After the morning’s “bell ringer” brings the group to attention, Harsh Upadhyay, the instructor, reminds them about the written summaries they are required to submit for a grade.

“At 8:59 on Friday morning,” he pauses and scans the group before he adds, “this class stops.”

The end may be near but listening to the discussion that follows is proof that The Code Breaker is bound to have a long-lasting impact. The insights and ideas generated by reading the book of the same title, about Dr. Jennifer Doudna and gene editing, will not screech to a halt when CHA ends.

Stem cell research and the ethics of editing genes sparks varying opinions. Pros and cons bounce back and forth as students evaluate potential ethical considerations.

“Should eliminating specific food allergies be allowed?” a young woman muses.

Another responds, “If there is treatment available, there should be no gene editing.”

Some questions have multiple answers, as there are many facets to examine.

The instructor points out that people are dying of curable diseases right now, but accessibility to sophisticated and expensive medical treatment is limited by cost.

Upadhyay, a math teacher from Louisville’s Seneca High School, prompts the group to consider the impact of genetic editing on the global community. “I picked books so you can educate yourself,” he says. “Your job is to educate yourselves with fact-based information.”

After a pause, one of the teens remarks, “This might sound insensitive, but if we saved more people, we’d have to be prepared to deal with a skyrocketing population.”

Differences of opinion among members of the class do not impede respectful interaction. Eliza Heinrich, from Dyersburg, Tenn., explains that controversy is healthy and welcome at CHA. “Even if we disagree, there is no yelling. It’s easier to speak out. A lot of us have personal experiences related to genetic editing.”

Eliza explains that her brother’s death has led to her biases. “I really don’t care if people want to use genetic editing for cosmetic purposes. If my brother could’ve lived because of it…” Her voice trails off and she shrugs.

I think genetic editing will be beneficial in the future, but in the hands of people with power, it could be a hell-hole,” said Javier Garcia, of Owensboro.

Another Owensboro student, Allie Fears, agreed.

“I like the idea of helping people, but I’m worried gene editing could get into the wrong hands. We have to take the correct precautions,” she said.

With the final day of CHA near, the class switches gear to the projects associated with their assigned reading. One group of boys has created a colorful placard and composed a fact sheet they will distribute about the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness.

Taking a more creative approach, three young women are developing spoken word poetry about women in science, inspired by the story of Jennifer Douda and other outstanding women in STEM whose work has not always received the notoriety it deserves.

In a quick read-through of the script, they demonstrate how their presentation will work. Their voices go back and forth, a rhythmic call-and-response, reminding the audience that women who are unknown in spite of their scientific accomplishments could be “your mom, your wife, your daughter.”

“Stand up for Rosalind Franklin, the first person who photographed DNA,” Allie Fears declares.

Avery Davidson, from Meade County, cannot say enough about how this class has affected her.

“I’ve learned so much about how women in science have been pushed aside. I love science,” Davidson said. “But women are still not equal. My mom’s an attorney and she tells me, ‘Be headstrong. Go for what you want.’”

Throughout the 3 weeks of CHA, Norah Laughter, a student at Greenwood High School and a resident of Logan County, KY, was the documentarian for The Code Breaker. With so much going on, she admitted, “The past few days feel like a blur,” but she also realizes that the images and notes she has captured ensure “that the passion and intellect of my classmates is not lost.”

An intense learning experience that involved 83 rising high school seniors, Commonwealth Honors Academy attracted participants to MSU from various parts of Kentucky, and also Missouri, Illinois, Massachusetts and Tennessee. There is no cost to attend, but participants must be in good academic standing to be accepted. Upon completion, they receive six hours of university credit and are welcome to take an additional six hours of tuition-free MSU courses during their senior year. Those who ultimately come to MSU are awarded a $2,000 a year housing scholarship.

More information about Commonwealth Honors Academy is available here.

Commonwealth Honors Academy challenges teens to explore and grow

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