Feature Story

Baxter employees host sessions for critical thinking and debate at Chicago high school

Nestled in the pages of magazines like Time, Ebony, Latina, Chicago Magazine, Sports Illustrated and The Economist are news items, ideas and controversies that high school students from Muchin College Prep in Chicagoa charter school that serves 500 students from more than 45 zip codes throughout the city and features many educational innovationseagerly await to pore over each month.

Magazines in hand, students gather in the school's library once a month to bring the topics found in these publications to life through spirited discussion and debate, transforming the space into a salon of critical thinking.

Facilitated by six Baxter International Inc. employee volunteers, Muchin College Prep's magazine club was launched by the company's African American Leadership Council (AALC) to fill a need for periodicals to keep the students up-to-date on thought-provoking topics and current events. When touring the school in 2012, Heather Polk, senior marketing manager in Baxter's Medical Products business and community co-lead for AALC, noticed that the school didn't have magazines in its library that could help engage the students.

"Magazines are a great way to get young people reading and involved in current events," Polk says. "They can also be a good option for those who have limited attention spans or who aren't as receptive to books."

AALC raised money to purchase magazine subscriptions for eight publications for the library, and started a club on campus to promote reading, critical thinking and discussion. About 40-60 students attend each meeting, during which the Baxter volunteers guide an hour-long conversation about hot topics or current events.

"We try to keep it fresh and relevant to where the students are in their lives," says Polk. "For example, an article we selected about the Lance Armstrong scandal prompted questions about ethics and peer pressure. We asked students, 'What prompted him to cheat?' and 'When do you feel that ethics develop in one's life?''"

Other topics have included gun control, entrepreneurship, AIDS, the presidential inauguration, and even the marketing behind the Super Bowl. Reading the articles can also help impart more general life lessonssuch as the need to be discerning about the writer's perspective and the potential for media bias.

Baxter's support as part of its Science@Work program helped launch the charter high school in 2009, and the company has remained involved with students since then through career development activities and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. However, the company has recognized the value in fostering critical thinking and analysis skills through non-science avenues, in addition to more traditional STEM programs.

Polk explains, "Through these discussions we encourage debate, trying to show the students how to develop, articulate and support their opinions. We hope that these skills will help them not only in high school, but also in college and in their careers."

Lauren Craft, Muchin College Prep Founding Dean of Students, has seen a warm reception to the magazine club since its inception.

"The Baxter volunteers pose great questions that really get them thinking, which they appreciate. Students are showing up in large numbers, and word of mouth has been spreading about the program," Craft says.

She adds that beyond the opportunity for students to engage in thought-provoking discussion and debate, the partnership with Baxter also exposes students to professionals from the corporate sphere.

"Getting face time with Baxter volunteers is really valuable, as it provides students a chance to learn what they do in their careers and what corporate culture is like," Craft explains.

Students from Muchin have had the opportunity to get face-to-face with corporate culture and careers through other Baxter initiatives as well. In 2009, Last year, more than 20 employees at Baxter Round Lake facility welcomed Muchin students to tour the microscopy and biology labs. This year, 15 employees from research & development and the commercial group visited the school three times to support biology, physics and chemistry classes at Muchin. And more than 20 Baxter executives have participated in career day opportunities with Muchin students both on site at Baxter and within their classrooms.

Polk says that she and the other Baxter volunteers are eager to remain involved in the club, and to see students continue to improve their critical thinking and debate skills.

"Teenagers can often feel they are being talked down to, or aren't really given the chance to be heard," Polk says. "I tell them that everyone has a voice. We're giving them a chance to express their opinions and perspectives."