Tomorrow, May 18, the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science at WPI celebrates 25 years of high-quality, rigorous, and distinct high school education with a day-long series of events at WPI.
For a school that initially faced doubt and hesitation from some corners, questions about the school’s success faded long ago. “Sustainability of a program is really important,” says executive director Michael Barney. “And 25 years speaks for itself. This is a firmly established program.”
But even Barney says while the program is well respected, current students and alumni carry Mass Academy’s message to the real world. “When people come to speak with our students, that’s where the proof is,” Barney says. “They see how polished they are and how much good content knowledge there is.”
The 25th anniversary celebration includes a student-led demonstration of the Apps for Good program at 2:30 p.m. in the Rubin Campus Center Odeum. Apps for Good is a program at Mass Academy in which students create a mobile, web, or social app that helps solve real-world problems of most concern to the students. A two-part symposium, “Changing Our World,” follows with President Leshin moderating the first part, “Building the STEM Pipeline.” Speakers include Dava Newman, PhD, Apollo Professor of Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former deputy administrator of NASA; Kevin O’Sullivan, president and CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI); and Paul Reville, PhD, Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and former Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The second part of the symposium features alumni of Mass Academy. “How the Mass Academy Prepared Me for the Real World—The Alumni Perspective” will be moderated by Barney and includes speakers Tommy Boucher ’01, PhD candidate at UMass Amherst and a participating scientist on the Mars Rover Curiosity; Maggie Frost Groll ’05, search-and-rescue helicopter pilot; and Andy Ross ’97, lead guitarist for the Grammy-award winning band OK Go.
A networking reception follows the symposium and features keynote speaker Russell Davis, president of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools as well as remarks from Massachusetts State Senators Harriette Chandler and Michael Moore, Massachusetts State Representative John Mahoney, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
Barney, who joined Mass Academy in 2011, says he loves hearing stories about the school’s graduates. “I meet people all the time who say, ‘Oh, my son or my daughter went through that program,’” he says. “Then you hear the son is a doctor or the daughter is a doctor or is working on her PhD or is a research scientist. You hear wonderful stories and it makes you feel proud to be a part of that.”
Mass Academy is “a public, co-educational school of excellence” with a comprehensive academic approach, but one that especially emphasizes math and science. Approximately 100 11th and 12th grade students attend the school. In the only such public school program in the state, Mass Academy seniors enroll in WPI classes, so they graduate from high school having completed their first year of college. Mass Academy is a collaborative effort with the state, the public school districts, and WPI. Students from more than 65 Massachusetts cities and towns are attending the school this year.
“I meet people all the time who say, ‘Oh, my son or my daughter went through that program.’ Then you hear the son is a doctor or the daughter is a doctor or is working on her PhD or is a research scientist. You hear wonderful stories and it makes you feel proud to be a part of that.” -Michael Barney
Students at Mass Academy often feel they have found a place that supports their academic pursuits and interests, but being surrounded by students who share the same passions for math, science, and research is often both validating and liberating. “Mass Academy gives them a place where they find other like-minded students to collaborate with and shape their talents,” says Barney.
Maggie Groll, a Mass Academy Class of 2005 alum who majored in aerospace engineering and minored in Arabic in college, says the school gave her solid knowledge, but her education was so much more than the content. “The advanced classes I took at Mass Academy allowed me to enroll in more advanced classes as a freshman, meaning I had free space in my schedule for language classes,” she says. “The dynamic, immersive Spanish class I took at Mass Academy made me excited and confident about learning languages…. Ultimately I feel that the Mass Academy experience is just as much about how to learn and how to think as it is about the actual information being learned.”
Tommy Boucher graduated in 2001 and says his Mass Academy years distinctly shaped his life path. The Leominster native served tours in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq, as a U.S. Marine and he is now a PhD candidate at UMass Amherst working on the statistical models within the ChemCam laser spectrometer of the Mars Rover Curiosity. Mass Academy let him pursue his interest in coding and computer science at a level that was even, at times, beyond his predictions. “Mass Academy was very difficult,” he says, but notes that the effects from his experience were powerful. Leaning on his education, Boucher quickly moved into intelligence work as a Marine and landed in a science career he so enjoys. “Without the basic skills from the Academy, I am not sure where I would have been in the military,” he says.
Despite the difficulties of the program, Boucher says he considers his Mass Academy education as nothing less than a gift, and so he will return to speak at the symposium. “I want to give back to the Academy in whatever way I can,” he says. “It was such a critical and formative part of my life.” Not only are many of Boucher’s friends Mass Academy grads, but his wife, Amanda Learned Boucher ’02, is as well.
“Science is one of those things you can easily be persuaded not to do. It’s tough and there’s not a clear path to money or comfort. But the Academy shows you science is for everyone.” -Tommy Boucher
Over the years Mass Academy has adapted to meet the needs of students who might be developing prosthetic devices or rewriting code, but still can’t drive a car legally. “Balance is important,” says Barney. In 2011 the school adjusted its schedule, so there was more opportunity for extracurricular activities and for students to play sports on the teams of their sending schools and have it count as an elective. Not only did the switch give current students new choices, but it attracted kids to Mass Academy because they knew they would have a way to stay connected to their old schools. Each Mass Academy student completes 100 hours of community service before graduation, establishing a record of helping the community and developing solutions to real-world problems they encounter.
Mass Academy isn’t a typical high school, but neither are the students who thrive in the environment. The administration and the students both agree—this curriculum is rigorous, demanding, and sometimes even tougher than the students anticipated. But they are supported by teachers at Mass Academy and professors at WPI, the reasons for the demands are clear, and the curriculum connects the work to life after high school.
“School should be engaging and fun,” says Barney. “This is hard work. But education should be exciting, stimulating, and challenging.”
For all the formality of marking the 25th anniversary, Barney and Boucher are especially excited to reconnect with past graduates. “I am looking forward to catching up with the students and just to see what they are doing,” says Barney. For Boucher, the camaraderie of fellow classmates is undeniable. “Science is one of those things you can easily be persuaded not to do,” he says. “It’s tough and there’s not a clear path to money or comfort. But the Academy shows you science is for everyone.”
- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil