Turning the tide in educational inequity

Student-led Wave Learning Festival provides free academic support and enrichment for teens

The Wave Learning Festival leadership team photos

Harvard members of the Wave Learning Festival leadership team (clockwise from upper left) Hannah Chew, Karly Hou, Steve Li, Daniela Shuman and Carter Martindale.

More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many K-12 classrooms, 62 percent of parents say their child’s learning has been disrupted by remote instruction, according to an NPR poll. More than 80 percent want additional educational resources to help their kids catch up.

Wave Learning Festival, an online educational hub launched by a group of Harvard students, could help fill that gap for many students. The website offers free online tutoring during the school year and dozens of courses, covering a vast variety of subjects, over the summer.

“When we started, one of the main things we wanted to address was the issue of educational inequity. This is a longstanding issue in the U.S., even before the pandemic, but the gaps have been widened by the pandemic,” said Karly Hou, A.B. ’23, a math and computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “A lot of students aren’t able to afford tutoring or don’t have access to certain enrichment programs through their schools, depending on where they live. We want to level the playing field.”

Hou came up with the idea for Wave Learning Festival after the Harvard campus closed in March, 2020, and she returned home to Palo Alto, Calif.

She reached out to a few high school friends to see how they were coping with the transition to remote learning, and the stories they shared were jarring. Her peers faced abruptly cancelled classes, had difficulty contacting teachers, and received little support for AP testing.

“After a while, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I thought that there has to be something we can do to help families during the pandemic.”

So Hou contacted a few friends from Harvard and pitched the idea of offering free online classes for middle and high schoolers. About a dozen students joined the initial Wave Learning Festival team.

College students filled out applications detailing their proposed courses. Then the Wave team vetted topics, interviewed prospective teachers, and helped them develop course materials. The first wave of 11 live, online courses were announced in early June.

Within days, more than 500 middle and high school students had signed up.

“We were blown away by the response,” Hou said. “We realized pretty soon that there were so many students who wanted to take these classes that we’d need to offer a lot more so we could fit everybody in.”

They ran five waves last summer, with classes that offered something for everyone, including math, quantum physics, creative writing, a capella singing, investing, and art history.

To meet booming demand, the team launched daily tutoring at the start of this school year; groups of up to five middle or high schoolers are paired with a college student for live, one-hour sessions.

The team also created a series of online workshops on the college application and financial aid processes, geared toward first-generation students.

The Wave team has grown to more than 130 students, spread among universities around the world, Hou said. Four other Harvard students serve on the leadership team: Hannah Chew, A.B. ’23, a history of art and architecture concentrator, is co-director of growth; Daniela Shuman, A.B. ’23, a computer science and economics concentrator, and Steve Li, A.B. ’23, a computer science concentrator, are co-directors of tech; and Carter Martindale, A.B. ’23, a government concentrator, is a legal lead.

Even as they face exploding growth, the team is committed to ensuring services remain free for students. They rely on donations from parents, grants, and a recent gift from the Overdeck Family Foundation to keep scaling up.

“The issues we are addressing are really important and also very urgent,” Hou said. “Post-pandemic, whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like, these issues of educational inequity will still need to be addressed. Years from now, we would love to be a national organization serving hundreds of thousands or even millions of students.”

As they prepare to launch new waves of online summer courses, the team piloted a program this spring to provide virtual after-school services, tutoring, and extracurricular enrichment to schools in the Cambridge area.

They hope to establish a nationwide network of university chapters that can offer similar services to local K-12 schools. More than 13,000 middle and high school students have participated in the program so far, and Hou is determined to keep driving the needle.

For students who teach and tutor, it is a really rewarding experience to be able to work with younger students and share something that you love and help them grow. And the students love learning about fun things and getting to meet college mentors,” she said. “It is such an amazing feeling to be able to help even one student. When we see that number—13,000 students—every one of them is a real person with a real family who has been positively impacted by the work we are doing.”

The Wave Learning Festival is currently recruiting for students to join the organizing team.

Topics: Student Organizations

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