An Interview with Matthew Jaskol : Pioneer Academics

Jan 27, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Matthew, first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your education and your experience?

I got my BA from Skidmore College, and my early jobs were in business advisory and technology consulting services. I was a consultant at Accenture in the US and at Deloitte Consulting in China. I developed research and briefings for executives of multinationals at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) corporate networks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. I also worked as a correspondent for the EIU’s publication Business China.

Since completing my MBA at the Yale School of Management in 2008, I’ve been an entrepreneur and early-stage company executive. My previous internet venture earned the 2010 Red Herring Asia Top 100 and Global Top 100 awards.

  1. Now can you tell us about Pioneer Academics? When did it start?

My wife, who is also Founding Director, and I formed the concept of creating this model of high-school-student-lead research in 2011. Back then people thought it was unrealistically ambitious. We ran the first pilot of the research program for four students in 2012. It was a real hit and we established Pioneer Academics in 2013.

3) What are you trying to accomplish?

Our goal is to offer deep intellectual exploration to outstanding young people of geographic and cultural diversity. The Pioneer Research Program selects gifted high school students and admits them to a rigorous program during they are mentored in research by faculty from prestigious colleges and universities like Amherst, Vassar, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon. The students choose from 26 academic research areas covering STEM, social sciences, humanities, and pre-professional, and our faculty partners mentor them one-on-one as they pursue original research of their own choosing.

I believe that these passionate young scholars, if properly guided, can reach remarkable heights through their intellect, imagination, and determination. Pioneer is a public benefit corporation with a strong social mission to fund need- and cause-based scholarship. To this end, we have developed numerous partnerships with leading domestic and international non-profit organizations such as The Jane Goodall Institute, A Better Chance, and the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund.

4) Tell us about the average student there.

Since our founding, we’ve worked with more than 800 students from 27 countries. They’re diverse both geographically and socioeconomically. What they have in common is high caliber academics, but one thing that really distinguishes most of our high school scholars is a powerful motivation to go beyond traditional high school coursework to pursue their intellectual passions.

5) How is technology integrated into your program?

The program is conducted entirely online, so it’s entirely dependent on technology. Students and professors connect through our customized videoconferencing and online communications platforms. But the technology is not the point; it’s simply a conduit to connect students with their professors and our research trainers and to connect them to the resources they need to enrich their work. Technology is the means to provide them a highly interactive experience that replicates the experience an independent study one would conduct under the mentorship of a professor during their second or third year of college.

6) How involved are the parents in this program?

Our students conduct independent research. Although they are working directly and closely with professors, Pioneer research scholars work more independently than when they take traditional high school courses. They develop their own theses, read with their own focus, and challenge established assumptions with their own judgment. That said, we are expecting them to handle the most independent kind of college or graduate school experience: research, while they are still high school students. It’s a rigorous experience that’s not for everybody.

So, we work with parents to help them understand unique nature and expectations of the program, and keep them in the loop about student progress at checkpoints throughout the program. In contrast, actual college students’ parents are probably not informed about their children’s performance until after the semesters are complete and grades are in. High school students, particularly ambitious students from 10th through 12th grades, are extremely busy and under a lot of pressure. We want their parents, and indeed their high school counselors, to be familiar with the what they are considering undertaking when they apply to the program and we want to keep them informed about how it’s going along the way.

7) Let’s talk literature–what do the students like to read, and what do you encourage them to read?

Our students like to read an impressively wide range of both fiction and nonfiction. For example, Tyler B. a 17-year-old from Achievement First High School in Brooklyn who recently was admitted to Princeton, researched comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

But Tyler was conducting research in literature, while other students conduct research in any of 26 other fields of interest that they might apply to. The works they delve into will be as broad as what you might expect when students are researching transhumanism, computational quantum chemistry, ethnomusicology, or neurodegenerative disorders. Rather than encouraging our students to read any specific work, students will need to delve into primary and secondary literature that supports and challenges their or others’ hypotheses while they conduct original inquiries or experiments into their areas of interest.

8) The ability to write coherently, in a grammatically correct fashion seems to be a lost art. What do you require in terms of writing?

I can’t agree more. Beyond completing an undergraduate-level research thesis of between 15 and 35 pages, the research mentorship and training process helps students develop formal expository writing skills. They learn to write critical and logical analyses of ideas leading to persuasive argumentation.

The culmination of the students’ studies showcases their originality, articulation, analytical skills, and writing. I liken it to a mini Ph.D. Of course, even the most gifted high school students, domestic and international, can improve their writing. So like a college, we provide a writing center with tutors that guide students to improve written work. However, unlike colleges, our faculty require all students to utilize this writing center. The writing center allows students to improve their academic writing while researchers and their faculty mentors focusing the majority of their attention on the content of their research.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

One question I’m often asked is why gifted students would choose to do independent research rather than focusing on grades and test scores. Many high schools have top students who finish their school credits early or choose to take as many AP tests as possible to fill their time. What these students really need is a stimulating learning experience that gives them unlimited room for intellectual exploration.

We believe the best challenges are customized and open-ended, rather than a search for the correct answer. Besides the learning stimulation, research is an interesting way to prepare students for college-level thinking while adding an unusual achievement to their college applications. In short, for talented and ambitious students, developing and pursuing their interests should not be a distraction from their college preparatory work.

Also, I am very proud that Pioneer is committed to a system and policies that ensure both transparency and academic rigor. Pioneer aims to create an intellectual experience that is both empowering and transformative. We hope the program’s influence goes far beyond college admission. If a student’s sole reason applying to conduct research is a college application credential, that student is most likely to fail or drop out of program due to the challenging nature of the work. So, identifying and building on students’ genuine interests are key to our philosophy and our success.

This is why when students apply, they only apply to the research fields in which they are most interested without knowing who the faculty research mentors in each field are.

Only if they get admitted do we inform them about the details of the professor and then give them time to decide if they want to accept the research opportunity. If so, then it’s the professor’s turn to decide whether to accept the student as a mentee. Through this policy, Pioneer guarantees that a student’s drive to apply to conduct research in a field is based solely on their interest and previous experience. We thus manage to keep the application process aligned with our core value of genuine educational inquiry while being completely transparent in giving students and faculty full choice about the mentors or mentees with which they work.

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