A Hyper-Successful STEM School, And Its Dark Side

The Illinois Math and Science Academy churns out hyper-successful and prepared students. But some of those same students are rejecting an atmosphere that they say pushes them unbearably hard.

Students published in peer-reviewed journals, classes four days a week, 3-D printers and DNA sequencers: It sounds like the engineering college at a high-performing university. But it’s a public high school—sort of.

The Illinois Math and Science Academy is a boarding school for 10th through 12th grade on the outskirts of Chicago, funded by the state, but existing outside the education system. It makes its own rules, recruiting highly gifted students, and then giving them both college-level opportunities and college-level freedom.

As Wired reports, that freedom is visible in every class

"The math teachers don’t lecture. They give out worksheets, and we learn as we go," explains Emma Sloan, a sophomore. These worksheets are basically problems that the students must solve, using their own wherewithal — and help from other students. In class, students will often gather in circles — or "hexagons" — as they tackle these problems. "Basically, the teacher would just drop off the problem set and wouldn’t even give you a hint on how to do them," says former student Spraetz. "It was just: ‘Here you go.’ Which is kinda how the real world works."

The purest expression of this approach is Wednesdays. That’s when there’s no class at all. Juniors and seniors take this day to leave campus and do their own research, sometimes yielding the aforementioned peer-reviewed publications. Projects this year included "Density Functional Theory Investigation of Silicene and Metal Adatoms" and "Effects of NF-κB Activation on E6 Oncoprotein Expression in Head and Neck Cancer Cells."

But that level of freedom has its downsides according to one prominent former student: Tay Zonday, of viral video fame.

"I just wasn’t mature and self-driven enough to be at a boarding school at age 15," he said in an email. "I had no focus and sat in my room on the Internet nonstop!" Zonday dropped out after the first year.

But those that stay and thrive have their own complaints about the program; Kevin Zhang, who just graduated as student council president, left the school with an op-ed "Advance the School’s Condition":

I’ve heard people call IMSA a ‘dead’ community. I disagree. Rather, the IMSA community has become something far more dangerous. The community has stagnated, atrophied, stopped.

Over the phone, Zhang told me it was a result of a culture of competition and overwork. "Within my residential hall it was not uncommon for students to be pulling weekly all-nighters," he said. "The two biggest issues are sleep deprivation and stress."

Zhang cited an expected course load of six to eight classes a semester, and an explosion of extracurricular activities. He told me that as student council president they moved to cap the number of groups for which a single student could serve as president. "There were definitely people I know who were presidents of three or four organizations," he says.

IMSA spokesperson Michael Abrahamson told me over email that resident counselors and study skills specialists are on hand to help students better manage their time, and they do take some innovative steps to curb overwork. "The internet also shuts off to all students at 1:00 a.m. every night to encourage good study habits, preventing students from staying up too late doing homework," he says.

However the school balances achievement and the attendant stress, it’s clearly a model with limitations. The stated cost of the academic program is close to $23,000 per student per year, which seems modest for the school’s ambitions, but is still nearly $10,000 more than the median expense per high school student in the state of Illinois ($13,532). More significantly: It’s a model custom-made for students who are both high performing and highly independent.

For a critique, I turn it back to Tay Zonday:

The mystique is puzzling. If we subscribe to the concept that boarding high-schools offer better pedagogy, why not raise all boats with that tide of better pedagogy? Why make it into a Hunger Games of privileged selection? If we subscribe to the hubris that some parents strike the DNA jackpot and their child is gifted, is it a damning critique of public education that these gifted children need to be rescued from the pedagogical "glass ceiling" of their local school system and specially groomed? Should the scarce social capital of "luxury pedagogy" be spent on students who thrive or students who struggle?

IMSA clearly isn’t the answer for "students who struggle." But for the sake of the precocious, competitive students who could thrive there, its approach probably shouldn’t be such a scarce one, either.

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  • Andy AE

    I am happy that someone is discussing the fact that IMSA isn't perfect but I think this article goes about it in the wrong way. The issues with IMSA are different for each person. I know I personally fell into a habit of laziness that almost got me kicked out but I had the resources to help me if I had taken advantage of them. Others suffered from the stress of schoolwork while trying to have a life like the article says, yet even more suffer not from the stress of the work alone but in adopting a self-deprecating attitude that results from either not doing perfectly or simply looking around and seeing what a brilliant group of people go to IMSA. There is no simple fix that will make everyone happy but that does not mean IMSA is a failure or even failing, it simply means administration needs to keep growing to adapt. I guess I am mostly annoyed that the majority of those interviewed did not reflect what IMSA was like to the majority of people. Emma, a friend of mine, was simply discussing the math department but had her quote applied to the whole school. Kevin who spoke on the culture of IMSA as he saw it explained a part of the problem that is essentially unsolvable in academia and could only be subdued somewhat if IMSA were to adopt a 5.0 grading scale, that could cause even more problems. Finally Mike before being IMSA's spokesperson was my resident councilor and he knows what he is saying is bs as the internet shutoff just makes homework more difficult to do and deters few upperclassmen from staying up later if they feel they need or want to. I am not defending IMSA, I loved going there but I still see its flaws everyday in some of the negaitve impacts it had on my friends. There are ways to work at improving IMSA but making blanketing vague statements does nothing but create a negative buzz that makes it harder for IMSA to get funding it needs. 

  • UnartisticInc

    I think there is a misperception that intensity and motivation are the same thing as cut-throat "competitiveness".

  • ncmathsadist

    If, when you attend IMSA or NCSSM, you think it is highly competitive, you haven't had a career yet.  The modern job market is ruthlessly and keenly competitive.  Many of my Computer Science students from NCSSM wind up with excellent jobs after they finish college and are realistically prepared for what it takes to get on and stay on a strong career track.

  • Luther Setzer

    I deeply appreciate the honesty of this article. Having attended the similar North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) 1982-84, I can corroborate the exhaustion and frustration too many students feel in such a high pressure environment. Frequently this massive extra effort comes with no long range tangible benefit such as college credit transferable to a university. Google "Advice for Those Considering NCSSM" for an article and related comments and videos outlining factors to weigh when deciding whether to stay home or leave home.

  • Brittanielynn

    IMSA does have a dark side, but so does life.  I think IMSA does a great job of taking kids who are on top of the world already, and putting them in a real life situation full of challenges   Life isn't a piece of cake, but for many of the students who go to IMSA, life is a piece of cake at their home school.  They go by being spoon feed the information they need to do well on standardized tests.  They are hardly ever challenged when it comes to their academic successes.  Yes there is freedom in the classroom, and I took an abnormal amount of math and science classes, but at the end of the day -- that isn't what I took away from IMSA.  

    During my 3 years at IMSA, it was normal for students to be on Prozac or the like.  Its though, and its stressful, but because I went through all that hardship at ages 15 to 18, I was prepared to face the rest of life.  It helped me put whats really important into perspective.  It helped me prioritize and manage my time affectively.  I am more concerned with the value of life, our community, and my role in it, than my own individual ambitions.  IMSA is the kind of place that outputs the do-ers of my generation --the open-source, entrepreneurial, do-gooders.  I think having gone through IMSA, made our gifts available to be used at at a young age.  We were opened up to start giving back to society earlier.   Not to say its all flowers -- or that it is for everyone, but the community is still there, still thriving, and I meet people touched by IMSA all the time. 

  • anon

    I'm going into my sophomore year at IMSA, not because I was recently accepted but because I was hospitalized for mental illnesses the majority of the second semester. I most likely never pulled an all-nighter, because I didn't waste time on computer games until all my homework was completed. Unfortunately, the self-control I was forced to develop deteriorated my mental state. I love IMSA. I think it provides exciting opportunities for those with the biggest dreams and highest aspirations. However, I think since IMSA is such a complex environment, the well-being of the students should become a higher priority. The academic and social pressures at IMSA create a breeding ground for mental illnesses, and the students need support.   

  • guest1

    I graduated from IMSA this Spring and I have to start by defending my friend Kevin. The way he is quoted in this article makes it sound as if he is blaming the institution is incorrect. He blames the culture of the not only IMSA but academic America and the idea that you have to do everything and you can't mention the hard parts. (Of course many all nighters are the result of irresopnsibly spending your time often students will put off school work and watse time on the internet as a defense mechanism. They are too frightened to face their work and the possibility of doing poorly that they instead chose to put it off so that if they do not get a perfect score they can blame the fact that they didn't start until the morning it was due.) Furthermore, while they have been comments saying that sophome who describes the math classes was being unfair you must remember that concepts were not always explain at the beinning of class and sometimes by the time the teacher got around to explaining anything the student has already been discouraged too much to bother to pay attention. I remember my three semesters of calculus being plagued with my trying to pay attention in class, but when every class began with students put the homework question up on the board I would lose focus. I couldn't concentrait on my fellow classmates attempts to explain what they had done (something made even more difficult with the fact that they were either fumbling or condecending). I would fall behind and they only be more discouraged seeing my classmates understand which resulted in my doing even worse. Is it my fault, yes you could say that, but I would also blame the style of teaching while there are students who do very well there are also those who do nothing but suffer.

    That being said I'm not even sure what this article is trying to convey. So I will finish by saying I will speak about IMSA's flaws all day, but I will also defend it and its students until the end of time.

  • dx

    "concentrait"?? "condecending"?  The number of other grammatical and spelling errors in this post is discouraging, but those two made my jaw drop. Are these really the best kids in the state??

  • zp

    I don't even know what this article is trying to say. Is it that the author believes that the school works the students too hard, or that the social cost of such an institution is unacceptable considering the average for 'normal' public schools?
    If it was the latter, what exactly is wrong with suggesting that students who have hit "the pedagogical 'glass ceiling' of their local school system" may need to be rescued?
    It is not merely hubris, as Zhang comments, that leads the state and those involved with IMSA to the conclusion that there is value in providing students with such an enviroment.
    If, indeed, it is the former, Zhang's comment about spending most of his time in his room on the internet, in my experience, is much more realistic than the later assertion: "Within my residential hall it was not uncommon for students to be pulling weekly all-nighters".
    I graduated IMSA with around a 3.70 GPA, which while not perfect, is above average occording to what I was told by my counselor while applying to colleges. It was not uncommon for me to spend nine hours per week raiding on World of Warcraft during my stay at IMSA. I pulled my fair share of all-nighters as well, but not because of classwork. Contrary to what most might tell you, any occasion where a student got less than a full night's sleep was not due to the coursework, but rather because of their personal inability to begin working before such a time as sleep was already forfeited.
    Just as the author cherry-picked SIR project titles that would lead the reader to a conclustion (in this case, "What, I don't even understand those!") so too will any student at IMSA when asked about their work. They're (we're? I did it too) not stupid. Given the choice to make their toil seem more strenuous than it is, the average IMSA student will certainly claim that the school is sending them to an early grave.
    Emma Sloan's experience in the math classrooms is foreign to me. Sure, the instructors would generally allow students to work problems out on their own with little assistence, but as I recall this was after the concept and other related and necessary ideas were already introduced to the class. Yes, the students needed a level of independence and the ability to work with classmates, but they had already been selected for these traits by simply being invited to attend IMSA at all.
    Sadly IMSA's environment is not a result of the actions of the institution itself, but rather the hyper-selective admissions process for high-end universities in the United States. Student's work so hard because the alternative is irrepairably changing the course of their lives. Whether we like to admit it or not, a name can be more powerful than almost anything else when it comes to college, and IMSA students understand this more than most. It is the desire to attend such universities as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford that creates this aspect of life at IMSA.
    Perhaps the one thing I agree with in the article is the author's closing lines.

  • ky

    Yeah, I agree that almost all the all nighters we pulled were caused by computer games and completely self-inflicted.  It feels disingenuous to blame it on coursework or extracurriculars.  Having the internet turn off at 1am usually just meant that we played games until exactly 1am, and then started homework afterwards.

    I saw a bunch of IMSA people at a wedding a couple months ago, and all of us turned out fine (fine = almost everyone had a doctorate other than me).  It was a little shocking to see how far all of us had come from those endless Starcraft sessions. 

  • kevin chen

    IMSA is not for the faint of heart, but it is certainly not as bad as this article is making it out to be. Just because some people were not ready for the independent lifestyle that IMSA sets before them doesn't mean that it is a malignant environment. To those who have commented and said that they dropped out before graduation because of (insert excuses here), I'm sorry that you weren't ready to handle the immense pressure at such a young age -- it is understandable. However, the institution is not at fault for being rigorous and competitive (though I always found it to be more of a collaborative environment than competitive, but I suppose that's just as valid of an opinion as yours). There is no reason to view the IMSA experience so negatively given that most people graduate unscathed and have extreme advantages over other students during college.

    Those who bash the school and its environment are the minority, not the majority (like this article and its comments would lead an outsider believe).

  • ky

    I graduated in 2002, and I'd say that the environment did not feel particular competitive to me.  I'm not sure whether they've changed it since, but we didn't have a class rank, and I didn't even know what my GPA was when I graduated.  I think the culture at the time definitely encouraged working hard and playing hard, not necessary in that chronological order.

    That being said, I had friends that struggled with IMSA, because you effectively have many of the freedoms you have in college.  Some kids can thrive in that unstructured environment at a young age, others don't quite have that maturity yet.  I think college would have been way harder had I not had the IMSA experience, so I'm incredibly grateful for it.  I wish that experience were available to more people in more places around the country.

  • Guest

    I was accepted to IMSA out of 8th grade. I left after my second year due to a multitude of issues. The stress of being in constant competition with your fellow classmates wears on you at such a young age. Difficulties with room mates and others in the residential halls were never properly resolved- I was tormented by multiple room mates, had hate clubs formed against me, and was generally harassed during my time there. The mental health issues among students are so widespread, and IMSA is by no means equipped to deal with the magnitude of the problem. The level of independence is not restricted to the classroom- it permeates every facet of life, at a time where many still need the guidance and action taken by adults. How can you expect a 14 year old to figure out he or she is suffering from depression, exhaustion, or anxiety, while still expecting he or she to take on the class load (or more) of a college student? 

  • hw

    I graduated from IMSA recently. One of the more important things to note is how this article places IMSA in a larger context - IMSA's educational model works well for the most privileged and/or 'gifted' students, but does little for other students. Programs like Kids' Institute make noble efforts to the contrary, but simply because of geography are limited to offering their brand of science-y inspiration mostly to kids in the Chicagoland area. They travel downstate sometimes - or used to, I was not involved in KI - but the less privileged and as such less 'gifted' students downstate who need inspiration at an early age cannot receive it. The current, solvable problem, then, lies not with IMSA's educational model (although there are certainly flaws in it), but in the fact that in the entire state of Illinois there is only one IMSA.  

    I also respectfully disagree with Kevin Zhang's opinions. 

  • jd

    I graduated from IMSA in 2012, and the sentiment of this article is accurate. However, sleep deprivation and stress are not the roots of IMSA's problems: the community itself is not very heavily motivated to solve these problems. I disagree with Kevin's stance that "The community has stagnated, atrophied, stopped." Rather, the community is enabling its members to disregard sleep in the pursuit of both entertainment and achievement.

    It's unremarkable for teenagers to stay up late to play video games with each other, but when this is done at every opportunity, and when the ability to scrape together multi-page essays at the last minute (sometimes the morning of the due date) is celebrated, it is not the school's fault that students are under high stress and lack sleep.

    Would further regulation by the school solve this problem? I don't think so. In fact, over the last few years administration has implemented more and more regulations on student life. While they are proud of the lowered dropout rate, they have not solved the core of the problem: a ridiculously cavalier approach to life and an astonishing lack of appreciation for their academic opportunities.

  • Liana Nicklaus

    I graduated IMSA in 2010. I really disagree with a lot of the things this article is implying. 

    First of all, IMSA was hugely committed to diversity when I was there (and by diversity, I mean economic, educational, and social background, not necessarily limited to race). Not only did they make me feel constantly supported as a woman choosing to go into engineering, but I saw my friends and fellow students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds build a fantastic foundation for their futures. I remember one friend who, after going through all the difficult college preparation IMSA offered, was still afraid she might not be able to afford college (she eventually found a way, though). She came from no money, and very little support at home. Through programs like EXCEL, a summer program for underprepared admitted students, IMSA tried its very best to make sure everyone had the support and preparation they needed.

    Also, at least when I was there, the environment was not cutthroat. In fact, I felt FAR more close to and supported by my peers at IMSA than I ever have at college. You're all in the same boat. You even live together. Every single class you have encourages you to work with others. The administration even abolished GPA to eliminate an additional source of competition. IMSA fosters collaboration, not competition.

  • pg

    >“Within my residential hall it was not uncommon for students to be pulling weekly all-nighters,” he said. “The two biggest issues are sleep deprivation and stress.”

    I graduated in 2005 and this was a huge problem then.