In traditional systems of education, students learn established information from textbooks and are assessed on their mastery of this content through exams, essays, and reports. Hands-on experimentation and project-based learning, when it exists, serve only to illustrate foundational concepts in pre-existing knowledge. Authentic research—that is, the creation of new knowledge through the scientific method—is typically reserved for graduate students. The Pioneer Research Program turns this system on its head, allowing high school students to conduct original research in a variety of research areas and concentrations. Rather than memorizing what other researchers have discovered, Pioneer scholars venture into the unknown to create new knowledge. This idea of “learning the unknown” is a valuable academic experience that many find increases motivation and engagement.
Seeking the answers to problems that have not yet been solved is an exciting challenge. Ranjani (India, computer science, 2021), sought to use computer science to detect neurodegenerative diseases earlier and more effectively. “[Learning the unknown] was initially very daunting, because I’ve never been exposed to something like that. It comes with a risk of failure, because you don’t even know what’s going to happen. You wonder, ‘Will I even be able to finish this methodology?’” she explains. “I felt like that a lot through the process, but it was also very exciting and very stimulating. I wanted to work on it all day. You are so passionate, because it’s about something you really want to do. It’s like solving a puzzle—I’ve solved this much, what question should I ask next to solve the next part of the problem? Step by step, you get the answer.” This passion motivates students to learn in a way that traditional education cannot.
Discovering new information can turn into a journey of self-discovery, broadening a students’ horizons. “I think the value of learning what you don’t know—and what you won’t necessarily know until you come across it—is that you learn the most and find the most valuable information that way,” says Ryan (United States, music theory, 2021). Ryan’s research centered on Nikolai Kapustin, a Ukrainian composer and pianist who combined jazz and classical forms. “If I hadn’t performed this research in music theory at Pioneer, I wouldn’t know that I was capable of performing music theory at this level, and I wouldn’t know about this composer who has amazing work but has never been discussed at all because he’s only been discovered in the past two decades. For me, it’s not really how applicable the actual research and this composer is to my life, but the process that it took to get there,” he explains. Amehja (United States, computer science, 2021) takes this idea a step further. “To learn the unknown is important not just for education, but for being a human being on earth,” she says. “Learning the unknown isn’t just helpful for advancing science and engineering, but it’s important for personal growth and for communities and civilization and governments. Learning the unknown is a vehicle for growth.”
Participating in knowledge creation gives students a window into what it would be like to pursue a career in academic research. Because authentic research is generally reserved for graduate students, the Pioneer Research Program is a unique chance for high school students to gain experience. Serena (United States, computer science, 2021) used computer science to develop a model that would quantify differences in resource allocation to indigenous and non-indigenous communities. “I think it’s really important to have this kind of experience in high school because it gives you a glimpse of what being a PhD would be like, and what learning the unknown feels like,” she explains. “A big part of it is motivation. If you see what the future can hold, you’ll be more motivated to study that field. It definitely did motivate me, and it pushed me to continue this interdisciplinary research.”
Pioneer serves as an excellent complement to traditional high school curricula by giving students a chance to dive deep into a particular topic and create new knowledge. While traditional education is effective at teaching a wide breadth of general knowledge, high school students can benefit greatly from a program like Pioneer that turns this system around and allows them to participate directly in knowledge creation.