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Catherine Wang with a woman in India

Catherine Wang, '21

Updating My Views: On Science Education and Life in Rural India

Last summer I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend eight weeks teaching at the AGN School in Tamil Nadu, India. As a Cardinal Quarter fellow with Project Dosti, I taught science for middle and high school students and helped implement an interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasized the excitement of real-world problem-solving.

My experience was a reminder of how much I love biology, as I had found it difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm for the subject during the cyclical grind of the school year. But in Tamil Nadu, I ended each day with my body covered in chalk dust, my voice hoarse, and my smile too big for my face.

I've always been passionate about STEM education, so I think a lot about how science can be taught better and made more accessible, especially biology. When I arrived, I saw that the students' textbooks were outdated and did not emphasize real-world applications of the basic sciences. In response, I designed new lessons that introduced cutting-edge biology research, some of which originated at Stanford.

One of my favorite lessons was about how CRISPR gene-editing technology could potentially be used to cure many of the diseases that the students already knew. Because they had only memorized a list of genetic disorders, they had never seen the impact of such diseases and the ways that basic biological mechanisms could be harnessed to treat them. I taught different versions of this material to students from 8th to 11th grade, scaling the level of detail accordingly. No matter what age the students were, their minds were blown.

When I reflect on my experience in Tamil Nadu, I realize that just because communication is efficient and hot water comes out of the tap doesn't mean American culture is superior. As I saw it, the culture in the rural village where I lived was a lot less isolating and more communal than what I was used to in the United States. This was apparent in the language—kids called each other "brother" and "sister," and teachers called each other "sister" and "mother." There were also fewer formalities in everyday speech, so people would ask me deeply personal questions that allowed them to get to know me better, more immediately.

I spent two nights staying in an art teacher's rooftop home. She was widowed and by all definitions extremely poor, but her life was full of color and simple joy. Whereas I had accepted a relatively nomadic life in the United States, families in the village had lived there for many generations. My art teacher knew her neighbors well and children from the village poked their heads into her home every few hours.

My time in India made me reevaluate my identity as an American and as a Stanford student. I began to measure myself in more mundane but important ways—as a friend, creator, and teacher, rather than a three-point-something GPA student destined to jump through progressively more demanding academic hoops. Though I went there to provide a more modern education, I learned something that neither the latest scientific nor technological advancements could ever teach: a view of life that values community, hospitality, and human connection. I hope to take this with me on all my future adventures.

Originally from Lexington, Massachusetts, Catherine Wang, '21 (Biology and Art Practice), joined five other Stanford students to serve in India through Cardinal Quarter.
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