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Essence of Research Rigor

“The quality of being unyielding or inflexible.” “A condition that makes life difficult or challenging or uncomfortable.” These are two definitions of “rigor” that Brian Cooper, Pioneer’s Director of Academic Research and Development, sees as far more positive when applied to academic research than they may appear at face value.

“What do strictness and exactness look like in a research context?” he asks. The answer is, they make an essential contribution to many aspects of a research experience. Process and methodology in research is one area. Very specific things need to happen to develop a hypothesis and a methodology, and the steps of a methodology need to be followed precisely. Ethical principles also need to be followed “rigorously, strictly, with exactness, for us to be able to respect the research.”  

Another level of rigor relates to the operation of values-based organizations such as Pioneer and the other participants represented at the Summit. “Pioneer has very strict standards about the faculty we work with, and how they evaluate scholars, the process that they take them through, requiring them to go through the full research process.”

The co-presenter, Elias Hanno, Manager of Research and Impact for Rise, which provides a lifetime of tailored support for 100 new participants each year, adds a discussion of how rigor is important in his own work. “Rigorous, project-based learning is not only a great way to learn and practice new skills, but also helps the program identify the next generation of outstanding individuals and help them to make the world a better place.”

The other definition of rigor, “a condition that makes life difficult or challenging or uncomfortable,” is particularly applicable to high school students engaging in rigorous research for the first time, says Cooper. Pioneer scholars are usually accustomed to a teaching method that requires them to learn facts, an approach that is “not particularly challenging, especially for gifted and talented students.” The “cognitive rigor” of engaging in higher order thinking can be uncomfortable, even frightening for young scholars who are not used to having to ask questions, or to possibly making mistakes. “Social and emotional rigor” is another uncomfortable part of the “messy, messy” research process that can be full of stops and starts, dead ends, moving “outside the lines.” Scholars need to learn resilience and persistence. He referred to one scholar who learned through her research that “when she ran into a problem, she couldn’t just skip it or ignore it. She had to work through it.” 


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In addition, experience in academic rigor is the basis for almost all of the top ten skills most likely to be in demand when today’s high school students enter the job market, according to The World Economic Forum. These include analytical thinking and innovation, active learning, learning strategies, complex problem solving, leadership and social influence, resilience and stress tolerance. 

A very similar set of skills must be demonstrated by the young people chosen as winners of support from the Rise program. Applicants are asked to choose an issue they care about deeply, and then research how they might address it. “Rigorous research really underpins the successful projects,” says Hanno. Applicants must not only define the project and undertake the research, but also continue to revisit the project, to assess how well it’s working, to discern what needs to be adjusted. “Projects evolve.” 

This project-based approach allows young people to demonstrate leadership skills, creativity, and higher-order critical thinking skills. “Ethical principles are also critical,” because projects involve people, and applicants “need to make sure they’re engaging ethically with others and factoring their perspectives into the research and project design.” And Rise looks for emotional self-awareness as well as intellectual rigor.

For successful Rise winners, their commitment to academic rigor can yield a lifetime of tangible results—tuition assistance, venture funding, ongoing training, and perhaps most valuable of all, a strong network of colleagues. “Every year, we bring together the newest cohort of Rise global winners and deepen the connections between them, encourage them to share ideas and collaborate on the project they’ve already done, or on their next big idea for how to make the world a better place.” Even participants who are not among the year’s 100 winners benefit from building a network with other “brilliant youth who are committed to using their brilliance in different ways.” And, of course, entire communities benefit when “thousands of youth around the world use the Rise challenge to try and tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.” 

About RISE

Rise is a program that finds brilliant people who need opportunity and supports them for life as they work to serve others. The program starts at ages 15–17 and offers a lifetime of benefits including scholarships, mentorship, access to career development opportunities, funding, and more as Global Winners work toward solving humanity’s most pressing problems. 

About Pioneer Academics

The Pioneer Research Program is a virtual research institute with the highest standards of selectivity and academic rigor. It is the only fully-accredited online research program for high school students.  

The Pioneer Research Program is respected for its selectivity and its rigorous academic system. In this system, selected students are mentored first in small international groups and then in one-on-one research by faculty of the leading colleges and universities, culminating in a full-length research paper. 

Pioneer offers full institutional research resources including digital libraries, methodology seminars, writing center tutors, and cohort advisors to support scholars and create a consummate learning experience.

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