Like most high school students, Alejandra (biophysics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Colombia, had little experience with self-directed, creativity-driven learning when she began the Pioneer research program. Naturally, she was a bit apprehensive at first—could she really conduct original, college-level research in biophysics with no prior experience? 

What Pioneer scholars discover is that the Pioneer research program is designed to help students make the transition to high-level academics, combining the rigor of college with high school-level support. For students used to excelling in high school without much effort, the challenge of independent research is a push to prepare for the next level. Working through this challenge is empowering, as Pioneer scholars realize their true capabilities. For her part, Alejandra says, “[In realizing I could learn on my own], I gained a lot of self confidence. It’s not as though I’m an expert in biophysics–there is a lot more I need to learn. But I am excited for it. Now, when I face a new and seemingly complicated topic, I am not as afraid as I was in the past. It gave me a lot more confidence and strategies to learn a new topic. It’s not just doing a literature review; you can get into the conversation even if you’re just starting, even if you’re just a student right now.”

From beginning to end, the Pioneer research program is designed to empower high school students to meet the challenge of college-level research. Pioneer scholars begin the program in small cohorts, with five group sessions to build foundational knowledge in their research concentration. They also attend research seminar sessions to learn the basics of research methodology. After these group sessions, Pioneer scholars transition to one-on-one meetings with their professor to provide individualized mentorship and advice. Along the way, Pioneer scholars have the support of the Writing Center and of their program coordinator. These supports serve as the scaffolding Pioneer scholars need to take on the challenge of conducting original research. While it is normal for Pioneer scholars to start out feeling shy, apprehensive, or doubtful about their capabilities, by the end of the program they are empowered to take on academic challenges. 

For some Pioneer scholars, empowerment happens when they realize they deserve to be where they are, and that their questions are worthy of answers. Areeb (computer science, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Pakistan, overcame shyness to participate fully in Pioneer. “I used to be a very shy person––I am still a shy person in-person, but the online experience made me realize you have to speak and you have to show yourself to others; you are deserving and you are qualified to be at the stage currently, or where you want to be in the future. I used to hesitate a lot; I struggled in the first four weeks of the research program,” Areeb explains. “Without asking good questions, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to get out of my comfort zone. My advice is to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. Get out of your comfort zone and do what you have to do.” Yvonne (art history/architecture, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Nigeria who describes herself as naturally curious and “introverted but not shy,” also overcame social discomfort at Pioneer. Prior to the Pioneer research program, she often second-guessed herself when asking questions, worried that she was annoying her teachers or asking something “stupid.” At Pioneer, Yvonne was encouraged to speak up when she wanted to know more. “Pioneer made me more confident in what I had to say… I apologize less for my questions. When I have a question and I need an answer to it, I don’t have a problem asking.”

Pioneer scholars are empowered intellectually when they realize they are capable of meeting academic challenges.  Areebah (math, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Bangladesh, gained confidence during her research that she will apply to math classes in college. “I worked with sequences, so I was always connecting things. In the future when I approach math classes I’ll use the same approach and keep playing around with things. What my research program taught me is that it’s okay to take your time, it’s okay to play around, and it’s okay to make mistakes. I will approach college with a lot more confidence because I know what to expect, and I know I am allowed to play around with things in math,” she says. Preet (economics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the US  and India, also became more confident in his intellectual abilities after conducting research at Pioneer. “My confidence increased a thousandfold, if not more, because I was now 100% sure that I had the intellectual capability to complete a research paper and simultaneously apply to one of the top institutions in the world. That was an intellectual change that I saw in myself after completing the program,” he explains. 

When high school students are given the resources and support they need to take on the challenge of college-level research, they gain confidence in themselves and their capabilities. In being held to high standards, Pioneer scholars realize they can do more than they ever thought possible.

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