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High school students from Philadelphia gave presentations at a conference held at Penn this weekend. Penn professors, graduate students and professors from other universities were among attendees.

Credit: Luke Chen , Luke Chen

It's not exactly commonplace to see high school students and professors of philosophy conversing and engaging with one another's work, but at this weekend's Philosophy and Engagement conference this is exactly what happened.

The two-day conference included presentations from high school students, philosophy graduate students and professors of philosophy on a wide range of topics, such as science, ethics and social issues.

“I think what the faculty commentators did was pay the high school students a lot of respect in that they really challenged them on the views that they had," conference organizer and philosophy graduate student Rob Willison said. "I was blown away by how able the high school students were to, in a certain way, interact as an intellectual peer."

Mohamadou Sow is a senior from Northeast High School who, in the last session of the conference, gave commentary on University of Massachusetts at Boston professor Lynne Tirrell's talk titled “Learning from Rwanda: Here and There.” Tirrell spoke about how language played a role in the Rwandan genocide.

“I’m here commenting on professional philosophers while learning, seeing how they think, how they work to implement their own ideas and intellectual findings,” Sow said.

Two years ago Willison and Penn professor Karen Detlefsen began working with high school students involved in Philadelphia Futures, a college readiness program that helps low income students prepare and apply to universities in preparation for an academically based community service course entitled “Philosophy of Education.”

Sow was one of these students.

“One of my friends was involved in the philosophy club and he suggested to me that I come and join. I had no idea what philosophy was," he said. “I was intrigued and wanted to learn more and ask more questions so I’ve come every Saturday since then.”

Lexus Davis, a senior at Philadelphia High School for Girls, has also been one of the students spending her Saturdays learning and discussing philosophy.

“It’s made me question everything more than anything, and think more about what I think and who I am," she said.

Throughout the spring semester, Penn undergrads worked with these students as part of the course. The culmination was a conference the high school students put together, mentored by Penn students, where they presented on the philosophy of education.

But as the semester was winding down, the students wanted more.

“The reason that the club kept happening was because the kids were asking, ‘are we meeting over the summer?’ ‘when are we meeting next?’” Willison said. “They just wanted to keep going. I hadn’t imagined past the ABCS course but most of these kids were juniors and they all just wanted to keep going.”

And so they did. Willison continued to meet with the students on Saturday mornings, learning and talking about philosophy.

Then, the thought of a conference of this sort appeared, he said. With the help of other graduate students, the high school students worked and prepared their presentations for the conference, engaging with philosophers in a way most high school students do not have the opportunity to do.

“It was pretty cool because not a lot of people get to do that. Learning from them and their different ideas, there’s a lot to take away from, not just as a high school student but for everyone who attended,” Davis said.

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