Early-college high school offers private-sector research opportunity

Students at Florida Atlantic University High School work side by side with renowned scientists in a professional lab environment.
By: | Issue: January/February, 2019
January 23, 2019
Real-world work—Early-college high school students get to help Max Planck researchers in a variety of ways, such as by preparing microscope slides.

Early-college high school students experience college-level coursework while earning tuition-free college credits—but one program takes the concept to a higher level with opportunities to experience the world of work and be part of scientific breakthroughs. Through a public-private partnership, teens at a stand-alone extension of Florida Atlantic University High School are working side by side with renowned scientists in a professional lab environment.

“This is really a shift in how we deliver education,” says Joel Herbst, superintendent of FAU PK-12 schools and educational programs. About one-quarter of early-college high schools in the U.S. are connected to a university in some capacity, he adds. “But no others have signed an actual agreement contract with a premier research institute.”

In this case, leaders at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) initiated the partnership, which brings together FAU High School and the Germany-based Max Planck Society, known worldwide for its research and scientific discoveries. The six FAU High students enrolled in a pilot program learn from scientists (including Nobel laureates) in MPFI labs as they simultaneously pursue a high school diploma and cost-free bachelor’s degree.

FAU Max Planck Academy students engage in laboratory research, organizing and analyzing big data using machine learning and other advanced computational techniques. They also assist in the institute’s scientific core facilities on electron microscopy, molecular biology and imaging. On the horizon are international networking, mentorship and study abroad opportunities.

When a facility dedicated to the academy opens in 2020, about 35 to 50 students will enter its inaugural class.

Early-college STEM stars

Academy admissions staff have gotten applications from across the U.S., which is not unusual for FAU High School programs, Herbst says. “We’re giving students opportunities they wouldn’t normally have anywhere in the world.” Students in the pilot are forming professional relationships with the researchers and don’t want to leave their work each night, he adds.

The school seeks National Merit Scholars with high grade-point averages and strong interest in data science.

Filling seats shouldn’t be a problem. FAU High School has gotten significant national attention as a Blue Ribbon School. Its students, who already engage in research across STEM disciplines, have published 26 articles in peer-reviewed journals and presented at 159 research symposiums.

A scalable model

Herbst hopes to see similar partnerships crop up at other big research institutes throughout the U.S. “It’s not a heavy lift to engage with students in a collegelike atmosphere,” he says. “We’re creating the playbook for what I hope will spread to the Sloan Ketterings and the Dana-Farbers of the world.”

Launching such programs will require a shift in business as usual. “Unless we’re preparing kids, through programs like this, for jobs we don’t even know exist yet,” Herbst says, “we’re going to be well behind the competition in the global economy.”