“The high school and college years are a period of dramatic growth across all dimensions of the human experience, academically, socially and emotionally,” says Amanda Mitchell, Pioneer’s Associate Director of Community Engagement and Outreach. Pioneer’s goal is to use its cocurricular programs to provide a transformative, deep educational experience for young scholars.
Director Matthew Jaskol, she said, is committed to Pioneer’s social mission of providing the Pioneer experience to promising scholars of geographical, cultural, and economic diversity. “He trusts that pivotal academic experiences will empower them to create the world they envision.”
Director Jaskol briefly reviewed some highlights of the history of Pioneer:
- In the first year, 2012, there were four scholars in two programs, with a 100% acceptance rate.
- In 2022, there were 4777 applications, more than 200 research concentrations, and an acceptance rate of 28%.
- Over the last five years, Pioneer has awarded $4.65 million in need-based scholarships to students in the United States and around the world.
- This financial support is made possible in part through partnerships with other organizations, such as Questbridge and A Better Chance, that are also committed to Pioneer’s vision of “being able to offer the most deserving students from around the world the chance to develop their interests and their potential in the most rigorous way.”
Director Jaskol contrasted Pioneer’s emphasis on excellence with the many messages that young people receive today promising “shortcuts to a lustrous resume and CV.” He noted that people realize their potential through creativity and a commitment to an area they really care about, “when they prioritize interest over accolades and process over product.” The Summit, he suggested, is “a shortcut to a space full of inspiration.”
Pioneer Academics has engaged Professor Matt Makel, Associate Research Professor for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, to design and conduct a study of how participation in a Pioneer Research Program affects the trajectory of Pioneer Alumni in university and beyond. Professor Makel’s expertise is in researching how to improve research so that society can better understand and accept research findings. His presentation was not only a summary of his findings to date, but also a practical seminar in research methodology.
The first step in any research is refining the research question and direction. For this project, that process involved “four big steps”:
- Learning and development—understanding what Pioneer is trying to accomplish, what its mission, system, and values are, so that the research question can generate an answer that will be useful to the organization in assessing how well it is meeting its goals. This step involved many meetings and much consultation with Pioneer staff.
- Collecting data. On the basis of the question that needed to be answered, it was decided that a combination of a survey, to elicit a broad range of general information, and focus groups, to hear some in-depth personal experiences, would be most productive.
- Developing new scales to measure the results. Starting from scratch has pros and cons. On the plus side, the questions are precisely tailored to ask about Pioneer’s goals and values. However, since the scales are not tested, the results could be unclear or uncertain.
- Analyzing the results. This step is still in process, and Professor Makel shared some of the preliminary findings.
The research process was designed to analyze three broad comparisons of particular interest to Pioneer. Was there a measurable difference in trajectory between:
- Participants who had completed a Pioneer Research Program and students who had been offered a Pioneer research experience but chose not to participate.
- Pioneer scholars who attended high school in the United States and those who attended high school in a different country. One of Pioneer’s goals is to remove geographical location as a limiting factor.
- Pioneer scholars who received a scholarship grant and those who did not. Again, Pioneer is trying to remove financial circumstances as a limiting factor.
Since the process is new, Professor Makel offered his preliminary findings with some caveats. The materials were gathered well after the fact for many participants, and just completed, and so the initial results are more suggestive than definitive. One particular problem is that there were fewer participants than hoped for. In addition, the results of both the survey and the focus groups suggest that some of the questions could use revision.
Nevertheless, preliminary results suggest that at least in the areas where Pioneer hopes to eliminate limiting factors, it is succeeding. There appeared to be little difference in the level of engagement in college life between any of the categories of Pioneer alums.
Professor Makel closed by noting that all the young people surveyed were eager to serve their communities and committed to making a difference in the world. He summed up the results with the words of one participant: “Pioneer set me up for a lot of success in life.”