The Pioneer Research Program engages high school students in academic research on original topics in their fields of interest. The culmination of students’ efforts, the Pioneer research paper, is held to college-level standards of academic achievement. All of this happens, however, outside of both high school and collegiate educational settings, through an academic program designed intentionally for the purpose of supporting students in this journey and within Pioneer’s rigorous and supportive academic system.

The standards and oversight that comprise Pioneer’s Academic System have been developed by Pioneer alongside Oberlin College, allowing the Pioneer Research Program to offer college-credit to all students who pass the program. The standards and oversight, and Pioneer’s rigorous approach to research mentorship, has led to the program’s full accreditation by Oberlin College. In order to support Pioneer scholars meeting Pioneer’s rigorous standards, Pioneer has developed a comprehensive research curriculum that provides structured support for scholars throughout the entire program. 

Pioneer’s approach to mentorship and expectations for its students lead to a learning experience that differs dramatically from what many students experience during their high school careers. However, rather than provide an experience that rivals that of traditional high schools, Pioneer offers an experience that complements secondary educational programs and builds upon the knowledge and skills introduced. So what is Pioneer’s research curriculum and how does it differ from high school academics? There are several features that define Pioneer’s research curriculum: 1) the research process: defining how students engage in research; 2) the creativity and agency Pioneer scholars experience; and 3) the rigor of the program, which requires students to develop their own research topic and contribute new academic knowledge to their field(s). 

The research process: guiding students from research area to research concentration, and finally to research paper topic
Pioneer’s research curriculum is the way students engage in research as Pioneer scholars. An important characterization of the curriculum is the way the research process is organized into three components: research areas, research concentrations, and research topics. Students designate up to four of Pioneer’s thirty research areas on their application, and upon acceptance, they are placed into one of them and assigned to a corresponding research concentration that matches their stated interests. A faculty mentor guides this small cohort of four to six students from around the world through five virtual group sessions during which they begin their initial research. Students are then guided by their faculty mentor individually to identify an original research paper topic drawing from the foundational learning of the cohort experience as well as their own creativity, insight, and unique interests. Research topics are formed as questions and must be original and contribute new knowledge and/or perspectives to the relevant academic discipline(s). Students may, however, explore highly abstract or extremely practical applications to these complex problems as well as pursue interdisciplinary topics.

Pioneer scholar Durga (international relations, 2020), from India, related that the focus on the research question was one of the main differences between the kind of writing she did at Pioneer versus the IB program at her high school. “The way I approached writing the research question itself…that process was very rigorously followed for this research paper.”

And Seungmin (business, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from South Korea, spoke about working individually with her faculty mentor and being able to pursue a meaningful topic as other distinct differences from high school. “The program as a whole is entirely different,” she said. “I could actually incorporate my interests into the program, and I could have a two-way conversation with a professor, one [on] one, face-to-face.”

Pioneer’s rigorous standards of creativity in the research process encourage independent thinking and allow Pioneer scholars to develop their own voice
As an important standard within Pioneer’s academic system, all scholars need to develop an  original research question and to produce a body of work that contributes to the existing scholarship on the topic. It is therefore paramount that Pioneer scholars – with support from their professor and from Pioneer’s research curriculum – develop their own topic, learning to add their own voice to the existing academic conversation around their area of interest. To do so, Pioneer’s research curriculum expands upon the high school curriculum and helps students apply their skills and knowledge, in addition to their creativity, to their chosen areas of study. 

Pioneer scholar Gayatri (history, 2019), also from India, shared how creativity played an important role in her research process. “I think research really helped me find my own voice…when I talk about creativity in research, I really mean finding [my] voice…finding my own perspective…finding an argument that you think makes sense…that has not been explored before.” Gayatri added that creativity played a part, not only in how she viewed and analyzed the historical events she studied but also in deciding how to construct her argument and finding a fresh take on the information. She learned “how to talk about these historical events in a way that is accurate…that also exposes [the] true nature of historical events, and [that] we’ve never seen before.”

For Pioneer scholar Eliot (physics, 2019), a creative approach to modeling spectra led to some unexpected findings. Seeing that in most research, scholars seemed to always choose a Lorentzian distribution, he wondered why that was the case, “I just thought…there are so many distributions. Why not try a different one?” His Pioneer professor encouraged him to use the accepted method as well as try out a different approach. He chose a Gaussian distribution, as well as a hybrid distribution. “In the end, I found that actually the Lorentzian model really did have advantages. But the process of exploring was really fun” he said, and he noted that from the process of trying out new approaches he felt greater agency over his own learning. “It’s good to work through the entire process. It’s always good to question previous science and he tried to find out. If there’s a certain convention that we use. It’s very good to find out for yourself, why we use that convention.” For Eliot, this process led to a deeper understanding of the scientific method and the complex path through which researchers develop new knowledge.

Pioneer’s academic system challenges and supports scholars as they create and contribute new knowledge 
The defining feature of the Pioneer’s research curriculum is the rigor of the entire process and the high standards for the final product: a research paper of college-level quality. This writing task expands upon the skills taught in high school academic programs, even those that require extended writing tasks—such as the IB extended essay, or the AP Capstone – AP Research course. Whereas these tend to focus on rhetoric, or form, and supporting students’ to write a paper that meets clear standards, the emphasis of the Pioneer research paper is on the creativity, originality, and relevance of the content. In essence, the Pioneer research curriculum allows students to use the rhetorical skills learned in high school—and offered at advanced levels in IB, AP, and A level courses—and apply them to original work based on a research question of their own design. The culmination of Pioneer scholars’ efforts, research papers of scholarly merit, are evaluated by their faculty mentors through a rigorous, standardized assessment process developed in collaboration with Oberlin College through Pioneer’s academic system.

This is what excited Pioneer scholar Owen (anthropology, 2019), from the United States, about participating in the Pioneer Research Program—the challenge it represented. “I did Pioneer because I thought it was a really great opportunity to do high-level research and develop my analytical skills in a way that wasn’t possible in a high school setting.” 

Alejandra (physics, 2020) from Colombia, agreed that it was the rigor and challenge of Pioneer that led her to have such a memorable experience, specifically around Pioneer’s standard that all scholars develop an original research question. “First of all, I had to convince myself that I could contribute to that area with something new.  It was really hard to create a new research question because sometimes asking the right question is the key and it can take a long time and requires a lot of creativity. I wasn’t used to that level of work, because in school they just told me to do a literature review about this, or maybe do a presentation or some kind of project, but it was never come up with something yourself from the literature you read.”

One of the biggest challenges for Pioneer scholar Aleyna (economics, 2020), from Turkey, was designing an experiment and then using academic language that was both descriptive and could be understood by the public. Like Alejandra, she also struggled with choosing a topic that would allow her to contribute to her academic field: “It was hard for me to narrow and focus my topic, but my professor really helped me, and that provided the perfect opportunity for me to collaborate with my professor and really get to know them. It really was the best experience…to collaborate to develop my research question, to put something new out there and see that I can contribute to academia. This was a really big achievement for me as an 18 year old student.”

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