Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

Applied Science

Yale’s Pathways to Science is designed to be accessible but its perceived exclusivity raises questions about Yale’s place in New Haven’s public schools.

Ten cow eyeballs sit on a conference table. 

In front of each eyeball is a teenager outfitted in a lab coat and plastic gloves. Wielding perhaps more gusto than precision, one student cuts her cow eye far past where she is supposed to. Clear liquid erupts all over her dissection station. She lets out a high-pitched laugh.

“Do you go to Yale?” another student asks the instructor. The teacher lights up, explaining that he’s a student at Yale Medical School. 

“You must be in a lot of debt,” one girl remarks. 

The entire table bursts into laughter. Another student asks how the financial aid process works, and a third wants to know how long it takes to pay back the debt. While the instructor answers their questions, he gently redirects them back to the point of the session: how exciting it is to be a doctor. 

These ten students are a sliver of the two thousand “youngest members of Yale’s scientific community.” Pathways to Science, the infrastructure that houses STEM outreach programs at Yale, brings sixth to twelfth-grade students enrolled in New Haven public schools to campus. There, they participate in extracurricular science enrichment programming. 

Reading through the list of programs that Pathways offers is dizzying. There’s “Science on Saturdays,” a lecture series featuring Yale professors followed by science demonstrations. Pathways also holds various “Days,” such as Brain Education Day, Reproductive Physiology Day, and Ophthalmology Day (responsible for the cow eyeballs). Students can build robots, tour the Wright Laboratory, explore the Yale Farm, build microscopes, study human osteology, listen to talks at the School of the Environment, visit Marsh Botanical Garden, and explore the impacts of video games on human behavior. The list goes on.

In theory, the goal of such extensive programming is extensive enrollment. 

Prospective students fill out a brief application: demographic information, school enrollment, and one short essay question demonstrating their interest in Pathways to Science. Once admitted, they have access to more than two hundred different programs, sessions, and events until they graduate high school. A third of the programs, the ones with limited space, are exclusively for the cohort. The rest are open to the public; any K-12 student can attend. Everything is free, and students can participate as much or as little as they would like.

Nestled in a sparse and largely underfunded extracurricular landscape, Pathways aims to expand access to opportunities for New Haven students. But questions of who the program serves—and whether it is truly accessible or implicitly exclusive—still plague some students and teachers. And behind the Pathways’ programming rests bigger questions about the role Yale plays, and the role it should play, in New Haven’s public schools. 

The Extracurricular Landscape 

Throughout his middle and high school years in New Haven, Young In Kim ’27 amassed 1,752 hours with Pathways. 

Starting in fourth grade, he spent all but one summer in academic enrichment programs at Yale. First, it was the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation summer camp, then a few years at the Morse Summer Music Academy. Finally, Kim was a Pathways Summer Scholar in his junior and senior years. As a rising senior, he lived on campus, attended classes, and simultaneously interned at an evolutionary biology lab through the Yale Pathways Research Internship program.

During his first year at Wilbur Cross High School, Kim told me, his school administration tossed out all but a few clubs—they didn’t have the funding to pay teachers to stay after school. Wilbur Cross is not the only school contending with a lack of funding. The New Haven Public School teachers I talked to cited a deluge of needs in the school system: updated technology, more social workers and guidance counselors, libraries and librarians at every school, working HVAC systems, and recycling.

Pathways ensured Kim wasn’t at a loss to find extracurricular opportunities. 

“Being in New Haven, me and my parents, we were aware of free Yale stuff, and I think we really took advantage of that,” Kim said. His parents came to New Haven as visiting scholars at Yale. His older brother, who also participated in many of the programs that Kim did, graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2022. 

Although such “free Yale stuff” has existed for quite some time, it has not always been easy for New Haven students to access Yale’s resources. When Claudia Merson, the Director of Public School Partnerships (which runs Pathways), arrived at Yale in 1995, outreach programs were numerous but disjointed. Faculty and students coordinated their own outreach on their own initiative. When the National Science Foundation began asking faculty to extend their research to underrepresented groups, the number of partnerships only increased. Parents were forced to navigate a labyrinth of programs when trying to understand what Yale could offer their children.

“[This] is problematic unless you’re a real helicopter parent,” Merson says. “You’d have to go to fifty different websites.”

If a CEO and a fairy Godmother had a baby, it would be Merson. She’s forceful but palpably kind. She could compel a rock to civic action.

Merson founded Pathways to Science in 2009 to centralize all of the existing STEM outreach programs on campus. This way, community members could more easily locate all of them. Pathways also streamlined the process for faculty looking to set up partnerships—an increasingly common request following the 1997 addition of the “broader impacts” component of the National Science Foundation grant application. Now, Pathways partners with faculty and students interested in setting up programs. Pathways staff manages the logistics and approves the content that the partner plans. 

Pathways was created seven years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a former national educational policy that sought to raise student achievement in public schools. 

A cornerstone of NCLB was the provision of supplemental federal funding to schools classified as Title I schools—schools like Wilbur Cross, which qualify by serving a population of at least 40 percent of students from low-income families. This funding could be allocated to needs including books, classroom materials, and hiring more teachers. However, the act also paid close attention to Title I schools’ “adequate yearly progress” using standardized test scores. If Title I schools failed to meet this standard, NCLB could penalize them by allowing states to change school leadership, or even close schools altogether

Connecticut was the first state to sue the federal government over NCLB. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, Connecticut Attorney General, argued that NCLB required administering more annual tests without adequate funding. In New Haven, public schools lasered in on coaching children to score high on standardized tests. A 2005 article published in the Yale Daily News reported that “five New Haven elementary and middle schools had not made adequate progress in both reading and math in the past year. Eleven other city schools were cited for deficiencies in one or more areas of the test.” Echoing national critics, local politicians argued that NCLB focused too narrowly on test scores. Schools like Hill Central Music Academy, which had not scored highly enough, risked being shut down.  

At the same time, the enrichment programs Yale offered for students were sporadic. Students would come to campus for a couple of weeks to learn some math or visit the Peabody Museum, and then their engagement would cease as quickly as it started. “You come [to campus], you launch a rocket and go home,” Merson tells me. “Collectively, as an institution, we were seeing thousands of students but just for a minute.”

In 2017, Merson and her staff added Pathways to Arts and Humanities—a smaller infrastructure that the Pathways staff is working to grow. 

“But you were a young writer, you came to Yale as a writer,” Merson tells me. “Somewhere in your trajectory, somebody woke you up. And somebody’s worried about your continuing opportunities to refine your craft and to explore your interest and your identity as a writer. And, that’s sort of the underpinning of what Pathways to Science is.”  

Merson established a secondary founding goal: “No child left unknown.” She wanted students to find programs they liked, and to keep coming back. But managing the sheer number of eligible students and their needs can prove challenging. 

“No Child Left Unknown” 

Pathways doesn’t just want to enroll high-achieving students; they are interested in all students who would benefit from coming onto campus. On this, Merson and Pathways’ coordinators—Richard Crouse GRD ’21 and Maria Parente—are insistent. 

“We want the kid that stays too long at the sand table, or takes apart a toaster for poops and giggles,” Merson told me.

Pathways’ primary method for reaching these students is through its teacher nomination process. Administrators ask teachers to identify any and all students who would benefit from Pathways—especially the ones who might not sign up otherwise. In its call for nominations sent to teachers, Pathways emphasizes it wants students who have “an inquisitive nature but may or may not be reaching their academic potential.” 

To ensure that all eligible students hear about Pathways to Science, Crouse and Parente basically do “everything except for sending pigeons,” Crouse says. Beyond contacting teachers, they send emails, text messages, and the occasional postcard to all eligible students encouraging them to apply to Pathways. 

To keep track of all two thousand students enrolled in the program, Crouse and Parente use a database that systematizes all student information: their applications, the programs they attend, and their demographic information. 

Once they become Pathways Scholars, students can expect a steady stream of emails, Slack messages, and the occasional text message reminding them to sign up for various opportunities in the Pathways infrastructure. Parents and students know Crouse and Parente personally and reach out to their shared work number, requesting suggestions for additional opportunities.

Despite already being “Pathways Scholars,” some students are encouraged to apply to additional, more selective Pathways programs. Pathways Summer Scholars, for instance, is a two-week science program for one hundred high school students. To get a taste of college residential life, rising seniors can choose to live on campus. Pathways also selects around twenty students, who submit a rigorous and extensive application, to intern at Yale science labs. With these programs, Crouse and Parente don’t impose GPA cutoffs, but they do ask for teacher recommendations and that students “demonstrate a strong academic performance in school, especially in math and science.” They emphasize that the limited space and academic intensity of these opportunities necessitate this application. 

In the summer before his junior year, Kim completed both programs. 

When I ask Parente if she knows Kim, she chuckles. In one breath, she recounts every program he has participated in from seventh grade onward. She stops talking for a moment and sighs. A small smile spreads across her face. “I mean, he’s such a good kid.”

From their database, Pathways staff think often about who is represented within their cohort. Crouse and Parente present me with a string of statistics: 46 percent of students in the cohort are first in family to attend college; 57 percent are female; 72 percent are students of color. There’s one statistic they don’t factor in, though: grades.

“What it takes to have a good GPA in school is not necessarily what it takes to be a successful adult,” Merson says. She tells me about the “rule of thirds,” an admissions model that she learned when she visited Xavier College. At the time Xavier had a high school summer program where it took a third of kids “deemed at risk (poor grades),” a third of kids with middling grades, and a third of kids that if you “lock them in a closet they’ll achieve.” By this, she means students who don’t need additional programming to do well in school. Xavier’s model affirmed for Merson that Pathways should accept all interested students, rather than targeting children in the “high achieving” third. 

Right now, however, Pathways doesn’t know what percentage of students fall under each category. 

Who does Pathways Serve?

Grades may not be an accurate measure of student intelligence, but they do describe students who have the means to be successful in school. For many of the teachers and students that I spoke to, “academic success” is the attribute they correlate with Pathways students. How can Pathways know that their cohort composition aligns with the “rule of thirds” if they don’t know the percentage of their students that falls under the “high achieving” category? 

“Pathways programs are for kids who might be future Yale students, like Young In,” said Akimi Nelken GRD ’10, an eleventh and twelfth-grade English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School. Nelken was Kim’s AP English Language and Composition teacher. “I teach a whole range of classes, but it’s only ever my AP students, usually, who apply to these types of programs.”

Of the seventeen admitted New Haveners in the Class of 2027, all but one were Pathways alumni.

Even as far as six years back, fourteen of the fifteen New Haven admits in the Class of 2021 participated in Pathways. I present Young In with these statistics, expecting some kind of reaction. He just nods.

In general, he says, Pathways attracts “a lot of motivated students.” That one slice of those motivated students ends up at Yale is not entirely surprising. 

These students are academically successful, but Nelken emphasizes that they “also maybe have parents who are encouraging them to seek out these kinds of programs.” The infrastructure is great for the “high achievers,” Nelken says, but many of her students “don’t have those skills yet.” 

“A lot of our students who struggle in school and have more challenging home lives or who don’t necessarily have the same kind of support at home,” Nelken said. “I don’t think they’re even aware that these opportunities exist.”

Pathways isn’t a college prep program. For Kim, it wasn’t a major part of his application to Yale. Sure, he mentioned his involvement—especially the internship—in his extracurricular section, but it wasn’t “part of the main points in [his] application.” 

Chelsea Coronel ’27, a Wilbur Cross High School graduate and a current First Generation Low Income (FGLI) Yale student, agrees. Her mentor at Squash Haven, an enrichment program for New Haven youth that is separate from Pathways, encouraged her to sign up for Yale programs. She mentions, with particular fondness, her time with the Health Professions Recruitment Exposure Program—a program in the Pathways infrastructure run through the Medical School.

In high school, Coronel tried to convince her friends to join Pathways. Most of her friends, she says, weren’t aware of programs at Yale and therefore “didn’t pay attention to these types of programs until their senior year, because they didn’t understand how important these programs were.” The “importance” that Coronel continually emphasizes is what she considers an unspoken truth: if you are from New Haven and you want to go to Yale, you should probably sign up for the programs it has set up for you. 

Coronel tells me about her friend. She’s a year younger and interested in becoming a nurse. “I was telling her what programs to do to boost her knowledge regarding a healthcare career,” Coronel says, “… and to prove on college applications that you want to be a nurse. She did not know a lot of them were even a thing.” 

“When the importance of [participating in Yale programs] is not communicated throughout the community,” she continues, “it kind of leads to the question of who are the ones applying and who are the ones getting in? They’re often the ones whose parents have knowledge. And they aren’t really FGLI.”

Once enrolled in Pathways, not everyone continues. Of the twenty to thirty kids that Amanda Weires, a Science teacher at Cooperative Arts & Humanities Magnet High School, nominated to Pathways, she can recount three that stayed with the program until graduation, none in the last four to five years. Amelia Stefanovics ’27, a Hill Regional Career High School graduate, told me she did not know of anyone in her grade besides herself that participated in Pathways.

“[Students] thought of Yale as something that was a little patronizing,” Stefanovics says, “[that] we were only on the map because of Yale.”

The Path Forward 

In New Haven, Stefanovics says, the vast majority of extracurricular activities—music and theater programs, tutoring, journalism, art, and museum events—are funded, if not run, by Yale. All of Stefanovics’ activities outside of school were Yale-funded. 

“Most of our programs have Yale etched on the label next to them,” she says. “some felt that it was like the Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984”

I ask her if this deterred students from signing up for programs like Pathways.

She pauses for a moment. “People are apathetic,” she starts, “they saw it as they were not smart enough to do these programs, which I don’t think was true.” 

For Stefanovics, Yale was antagonized before kids even stepped on campus. It’s hard for an email to students encouraging them to sign up to change that. 

Yet Pathways was a career-defining opportunity in Stefanovics’ life. At the Summer Scholars program, she signed up for a course about Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a topic she initially didn’t like. Once she “actually started doing it,” she became so interested that she went on to complete two projects with her high school. One, a side project in her environmental science class, was about a disappearing island cataloged in the nineteen-fifties. Using GIS mapping, she believes it could be submerged under the ocean. She couldn’t have done it without the help of her Pathways instructors, she told me. As of now, she wants to pursue a career in GIS.

Co-op science teacher Weires says many of the students she recommends for Pathways still face significant barriers. 

Students need resources. They need transportation. They need to “have an adult who will make the time to release them from watching younger brothers and sisters.” Weires tells me that when she sends home forms to be signed, she likely will never see 10 percent of those forms again: “There’s a percentage of the population in New Haven, [where] you’re never ever going to get that signature. And so you miss out on those kids.” 

In English teacher Nelken’s eyes, science career exposure is simply not what many of her students need. She emphasizes the more pressing need for other kinds of support: mental health and social-emotional resources, “things that could help kids figure out how to manage all of the different aspects of their lives.” 

For Dave Weinreb, the magnet resource teacher at Elm City Montessori School, a member of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, and New Haven resident,  Yale could simply “pay their fair share directly to schools” and let them meet their students’ needs. “There is meaningful exposure that comes from the Ivory Tower,” he says, but he “wholeheartedly trust[s] teachers” to best determine what students need. 

“The least creative solution is actually the one that would be most effective,” he says. 

For Weires, Pathways just needs more staff. Right now, Crouse is the only full-time Pathways to Science staff member. The program needs people to come to parent-teacher nights; it needs people to run focus groups; it needs to “find out what [parents] need in order to get their kid to go to Pathways.” This project, by nature, requires listening to and accommodating hundreds of individual circumstances. 

Weires tells me about her three students who stayed with the program throughout high school. Pathways convinced one to become a biology major. Another came back during her college years and worked for the Peabody Museum. The third went to Yale on a full scholarship. 

“There’s always always kids who’ve had good experiences,” she said. “There’s always kids who are like, Oh, I learned this really cool thing where I looked through the giant telescope or like, you know, all that stuff.”

All that stuff. There is an unavoidable sense of possibility in that sentiment. When used correctly, maybe all that stuff changes a life. Maybe it imposes an obligation. Or it’s just tucked away. Invisible. I can’t help but wonder who is looking through that telescope.

– Chloe Budakian is a first-year in Silliman College.

More Stories
Eagle Eyes