Traditionally, students are encouraged to take courses in a sequence moving from the general to the specific. This system of education generally assumes that students must first acquire broad knowledge of a subject before they are capable of undertaking in-depth research into it. For this reason, a majority of undergraduate students do not engage in research, and for many young scholars, it is not until their third year of PhD work that they are able to contribute to academic knowledge.
Pioneer’s innovative academic system takes the opposite approach, plunging high school students into highly specialized research areas. Pioneer’s approach is meant to complement traditional education based on the belief that while students are acquiring a breadth of knowledge, it is also important to provide opportunities for them to delve deeply into certain topics. When given the opportunity to do specialized research, students gain confidence and real-world expertise. They can deepen their interest in a subject and develop skills and frameworks that they may use later in the same field or across disciplines.
Jon (international relations; 2018, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, knew from a young age that he was interested in international relations. “I was always very, very interested in [IR], but Pioneer especially catalyzed my love for it by allowing me to dive a bit deeper and specialize in the areas I find most interesting,” he says. Jon did the Pioneer research program twice, writing two economics-focused research papers without any formal experience in the subject. When he finally did take an introductory economics course, he says, “I felt very prepared, because my two papers were basically very specific case studies… so when I took a more general economics course, I was able to draw examples from my research and compare economic theories to those cases.”
For Areebah (mathematics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Bangladesh, diving deep into math research allowed her to build confidence and follow a passion. When she first found out she was accepted to Pioneer’s research program, she struggled with imposter syndrome. “I thought it was a fluke,” she confides. However, as the weeks went on, Areeba realized that she was capable of doing math research, and that it was actually enjoyable. “When it comes to my research experience, I could dive into a whole new topic I would not have known in high school… It’s the thrill of exploring something you love,” she says. Having done this specialized research, Areebah is now much more confident in her abilities. “I think I’ll be able to approach college with a lot more confidence because I know what to expect, and I know that I am allowed to play around with things [to solve math problems],” she explains. She also says that she will seek out more classes related to the sequences she learned about in her research concentration.
Vinh (physics/astronomy, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, believes that opportunities for deep engagement with a specific topic can complement traditional models of education that focus on developing general knowledge of a subject. “Each approach has its own merits and its own goals. There is a benefit to making sure students have enough foundational knowledge to grasp every aspect of a subject, but I also think that exposing students to more specific focus earlier in their career is good because it helps their critical thinking skills and how they approach problems,” he explains. Furthermore, he says,“It also provides exposure to things later on and helps students get used to the idea of working with specific topics later on.”
Pioneer scholars are proof that students do not need to master all the basics in a given research area before they can dive deep and do creative research. Rather than clinging to a prerequisite model of education that insists on breadth of knowledge before depth, Pioneer gives young scholars the opportunity to follow their passions with highly specialized research.