STEM students partner with private-sector researchers

A private-public partnership allows teens at a stand-alone extension of Florida Atlantic University High School to work alongside renowned scientists in a professional lab environment.
By: | Issue: March, 2019
February 14, 2019
STEMReal-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 STEM 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 private-public 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 high-achieving 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.

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.”



Partners in education: Florida Atlantic and Max Planck

A partnership between the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) and Florida Atlantic University established an FAU undergraduate honors program in neuroscience, which launched in fall 2018. One of the program’s aims is to attract high-performing and talented students, such as National Merit Scholars already dual-enrolled at FAU High School.

Students have access to exclusive electives aligned with MPFI’s faculty and research infrastructure and can apply to International Max Planck Research Schools in Germany.

Prior to the honors program launch, FAU and Max Planck partnerships led to the creation of two graduate degree programs.