Dr. Claire Thompson stands in front of her class, a row of skull casts arranged in front of her in order from the oldest, a little larger than a softball, to youngest, of a size and shape with which we are familiar today.
“What you have in front of you is, basically, almost 7 million years of human evolution,” Thompson tells her students. “Before we get into this, we have to make sure we understand the science behind it, so you have this evidence you’re presented with and you can make up your own mind.”
She might be teaching her introductory-level Anthropology 102 course at the University of Alabama. But on this day, Thompson is in a college-style lecture hall at Murphy High School and her class is full of high school students in Alabama’s Early College program at the Murphy University Center.
The Early College program allows high school students to earn college credit while taking courses from actual college professors. While much of that coursework is done online or through videoconferencing, Thompson has begun coming to Murphy every couple of weeks to provide an in-person classroom teaching component as well.
“Through Early College, the students have been able to kind of see what it would be like if they were actually up there taking one of my classes,” Thompson said. “I teach no differently to my college students than I do to the students at Murphy.”
Gene Montgomery, International Baccalaureate coordinator and Dean of Students for Early College at Murphy, said 105 students are currently enrolled in Early College. They and the first cohort, which graduated last year, have combined to earn more than 1,000 hours of college credit.
“That’s the main objective,” Montgomery said, “to save those parents money, to cut down on student debt and to get that student to graduate school or to the workforce a year faster.”
But Early College does more than give students a head start toward earning their degrees. By employing a blended model that includes online learning, videoconferencing and on-site classroom instruction, it’s preparing students for the different avenues and methods of instruction they will experience on the college level.
“I think it’s slightly different than the high school environment, because so much of what we do in the college environment is lecture,” said Thompson, who will be visiting Murphy five times this semester and teaching in three-hour blocks each visit. “Because I get to be here for three hours, which is such a benefit – I never get to see my undergraduate students for three hours at a time – we can interact in different formats. We’ll do the lecture, we’ll do the hands-on work and then I help them in the end literally work on their assignments with me in the classroom.
“Getting that face-to-face, it just gets them in that mindset of: ‘OK, this is the role a professor can have in my life,’” she added. “I think so many students even at the college level forget to take advantage and realize that we as professors really are there for our students.”
While there are other opportunities besides Early College for students to earn college credit, such as AP courses and dual enrollment, Montgomery said having an actual college professor not only allows students to acquaint themselves with what will be expected of them on the college level, but allows professors a chance to meet and prepare their next generation of college students.
“It’s a great opportunity not only for our students but also I think for the university,” he said, “for their professors to work with the students so that we wind up getting a better product in the end in a student in college.”
While Thompson is the first UA professor to bring her show on the road in Mobile, she won’t be the only one. Plans are in the works for hosting visiting professors in psychology and English in the future.
Thompson said she’s been impressed with the students and the facilities at Murphy.
“When I first came down I was so impressed with the facilities. It literally mirrors the campus of the University of Alabama,” she said. “The students at Murphy have been some of the best students I’ve ever taught. I think there’s just this amazing drive with the students here because they understand the benefits.”