Gatton Academy of Math and Science
An inside look at the Commonwealth’s brightest junior and senior high school students attending their first year at the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University
Taylor Lutz knows a thing or two about cow eyes. At least five hours each week, he finds himself in a Western Kentucky University science lab putting cow cornea cells through various tests to determine how fast they can regrow and repair a wound. Pretty heady stuff, particularly given that Lutz is only a high school senior.
The Elizabethtown native is one of 120 students enrolled in the new Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky, housed at Western Kentucky University.
Launched this year as the 14th residential school of its kind in the United States, the academy focuses on strong science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum for high school juniors and seniors, inviting them to live on campus at WKU, essentially starting college early.
For students like Linda Flynn, 18, of Bowling Green, the academy has been a welcome alternative to what otherwise might have been a lackluster senior year at high school.
“I wanted a different option, something that would allow me to take different classes and meet different people,” Flynn said over a slice of pizza during lunchtime in a common room of Florence Schneider Hall, the academy’s dedicated residence hall on the WKU campus. Seemingly no expense was spared during the recent renovation to bring the striking 1920s-era white limestone dormitory into the 21st century: what was once the ballroom is now a high-tech computer classroom, the building has its own Wi-Fi, and everywhere there are cozy spots for studying or meeting, or even playing a tune on the grand piano that anchors the lobby.
Sitting with her, Lutz, 18, agreed. He’d needed “a higher challenge beyond Advanced Placement courses,” and the academy has been the perfect fit.
“Sometimes parents ask, ‘How can you let your child go away from home at such a young age?’” says Dr. Julia Roberts, the director of WKU’s Center for Gifted Studies, who spearheaded the effort to launch the academy nearly 10 years ago. “And my response is, ‘It all depends on how much your child needs a different experience.’ If your child’s needs are being met in the home high school, then there’s no need to even consider (the academy). But for young people who so need to learn at a higher level and a faster pace, this is a wonderful way for them to continue learning.”
Challenging Talented Students
At the academy, students enroll in core math and science classes and have an opportunity to pursue their individual interests in applied sciences like astronomy, engineering, manufacturing, or physics—all taught by WKU professors.
When they graduate, they’ll have earned both their high school diploma and 60 or more college credit hours, essentially for free. Thanks to funding for tuition and room and board from the state, students selected for the academy are responsible only for paying for their books, travel, and other incidental fees. The academy’s endowment gift of $4 million from Carol Martin Gatton, a Tennessee businessman with Kentucky ties, will be used for “value-added” activities for students, including opportunities for summer research and bringing distinguished scientists and engineers to campus, Roberts says.
Because this year is the academy’s first, its inaugural class includes 60 juniors and 60 seniors, representing 61 Kentucky counties. Each year hereafter, the academy will admit a new class of 60 juniors from across the state for its two-year program. Students are selected on the basis of their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, teacher and counselor recommendations, and an interview. This year’s students had an average GPA of 3.91 and an overall ACT average of 27.3. Students must have a minimum math ACT of 22 or math SAT of 500 to apply.
Having an influx of such talented students has been a boon to Western’s campus, says Dr. Bruce Kessler, math professor and assistant dean of WKU’s Ogden College of Science and Engineering. To capitalize on the talents of academy students in his Math 117 trigonometry class, Kessler, in response to a mathematics departmental initiative, has redesigned the course entirely, foregoing a traditional textbook and the usual emphasis on rote equation-solving for a more applied, hands-on approach. To discuss projectile motion, for example, Kessler brought in a homemade projectile launcher. His students shot darts and the class developed equations to describe the position of the dart in the air. They then used the equations to properly set the angle of the launcher to hit targets.
“This is not a group to be lectured to. They want to be engaged,” agreed Dr. John Hagaman, an English professor who had 16 academy students in his fall Introduction to Literature class. Hagaman’s class acted out portions of plays, drew artistic responses to pieces of literature, wrote their impressions of stories in online blogs, and even called on footage from YouTube, like the “Othello Rap,” during the course of the semester.
Hagaman says the academy students often out-performed even the college sophomores in his class. “I have just had the socks knocked off of me, in terms of the essays they have written, showing depth and insight far beyond their years,” he says.
While some academy classes like Kessler’s are designed to be smaller, for academy students only, typically academy students take regular WKU classes, alongside traditional college students.
Student Matthew Brasher, an academy junior from Marion, says, “My classes have ranged from 12 students to 120 students, and everywhere in between.”
Bright and accustomed to exemplary high school grades with minimal effort, some of the students were a bit shocked by the rigor of their coursework at WKU initially, says Tim Gott, the program’s director.
“It’s harder than what I expected it to be,” says Lorrin Welch, an academy senior from Paintsville. “I usually never studied in high school. Here you have to study a lot more.”
Next year, the academy plans to implement additional study skills workshops to help its students make the transition to higher-caliber, college-level classes, Gott says.
Home Away from Home
Academy students are encouraged to take advantage of the many enrichment opportunities available to them on the WKU campus. They can take part in extracurricular activities like marching band, choirs, theatrical productions, intramural sports, and various clubs. There are some restrictions, though: academy students are not permitted to join fraternities or sororities or drive cars while in Bowling Green (they can drive from home to campus, but then must park their cars and turn in their keys); they cannot enter other dormitories on campus; and they must follow a curfew that has them in their wing of Schneider Hall by 10:30 on weeknights and midnight on weekends.
While Lutz and Flynn say the curfew is “kind of inconvenient”—particularly when they have to stop studying at the library to trek back to their dorm—it is one key to giving many parents peace of mind about sending their children to a college campus at only 16 or 17 years of age.
Academy directors call Schneider Hall a “supervised home away from home.” Its coded key entries keep other, nonacademy students from entering the building, and don’t allow female academy students to enter the males’ wings or males to enter the females’ wings. The residence hall has a live-in director and assistant director, and features one student-life staff member for every eight students, far more staff than at a traditional college hall.
The restrictions “quelled a lot of my concerns,” says Ruben Cid of Dry Ridge, whose son, Ruben, is an academy junior. “Knowing that he’s going to be home at a certain time, not just out doing who knows what, getting into trouble, that helped,” he says. Cid added, too, that given cell phones, texting capabilities, and e-mail, it’s easy to stay in touch every day with his son, even if he’s no longer sitting at the dinner table each evening.
Students at the academy do get to go home for visits on “off weekends” roughly once a month. During the summer, they can pursue a research or internship opportunity at home.
The transition away from home is challenging, Welch, the Paintsville senior admits. No more home-cooked food. No more help with laundry. No more mom serving as an alarm clock.
“Being away from home, you learn to be more mature. You learn to become more responsible. You have to take the initiative to do your work and do everything else. You challenge yourself in every way here, not just academically,” she says.
Because academy students go through the transition from home to college together at such a young age, friendships are fast-forming and strong at Schneider Hall, says Corey Alderdice, the academy’s assistant director. “It’s truly a living and learning environment. It’s not just a place to sleep at night, but rather a community of peers and scholars,” he says.
And the decision to attend the academy doesn’t have to mean severing old friendships entirely: in most cases, students can attend their homecoming and prom at their home high schools as long as they don’t interfere with their WKU classes. And come May, students can opt to walk through graduation ceremonies at both the academy and their former high schools, Gott says.
The academy is “really a good place to be smart,” says John Edwards of Henderson, whose son, Aaron, is an academy senior. “Whereas in public high school, sometimes some of these kids are not accepted. It gives them an ego boost, in that they’re somewhere with a lot of other kids who are academically inclined.”
Continuing College after Gatton
As some of Kentucky’s brightest students, academy graduates will have many college options available to them. Western plans to offer a full-tuition scholarship package for those, like Welch, who plan to stay on at WKU to continue their studies. Others, like Lutz and Flynn, have prestigious out-of-state colleges—including Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, William and Mary, and Northwestern—on their target list.
Directors at the academy stress that they want their students to find the college that’s right for them. But Roberts makes no bones about her desire to have academy graduates live in Kentucky once their college diplomas—wherever they are obtained—are in hand. She cites as a model Texas’ success in keeping its best and brightest at home: 67% of Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science alumni are Texas residents.
Reversing the so-called “brain drain” will help raise Kentucky from its current 47th-place ranking in number of scientists and engineers, and lead to a stronger infrastructure for math and science education across the state, Roberts says.
“I want them to live in Kentucky and bring that training here, as improving the economy of the Commonwealth is one of the major goals of the Gatton Academy,” she says. That, Roberts hopes, will be the legacy of the academy.
MATH AND SCIENCE ACADEMY STUDENT SELECTION CRITERIA
The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky admits up to 60 Kentucky residents each year with equal division between male and female students for a total of 120 students. Gatton Academy applicants are high school sophomores who have completed geometry, algebra I, and algebra II by the end of their sophomore year.
Students are selected based on SAT or ACT scores (students must have a minimum math ACT of 22 or a minimum math SAT of 500 to apply); academic grades from ninth and tenth grades; interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math; student responses to application essay questions; recommendations from teachers and a counselor; and interviews by Gatton Academy staff members.
To apply for the 2008/2009 academic year
Deadline to apply to the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky for the class of 2010 (enrolling in fall 2008) is February 15, 2008. Application forms are available online at www.wku.edu/academy.
PREPARING FUTURE STUDENTS FOR THE ACADEMY OF MATH AND SCIENCE
If your child is interested in applying for the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky in the future, encourage them to take challenging courses, say academy advisors. Have them take as many Advanced Placement and honors courses as are available to them. Middle school students should consider taking algebra I by the eighth grade so they can complete both geometry and algebra II by the end of their sophomore year.
The application deadline is in February for the following fall’s academic year.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: GATTON ACADEMY OF MATH AND SCIENCE CURRICULUM
To review the junior year and senior year curriculum at the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky, click here: Gatton curriculum.