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Six Florida high school students are spending this year at the prestigious Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, learning data science techniques and how to use them to analyze images of the brain. The students are in a pilot class of what will become the Max Planck Academy, set to enroll between 35 and 50 high school juniors in 2020.

These students, admitted based on the strength of their applications to the public, tuition-free academy, will get an individualized course load based on their interests, as well as the chance to participate in active research alongside doctoral students and scientists at the institute. After their final two years of high school, the students will graduate with a diploma and an associate degree.

“Being able to take students with an early-college curriculum, position them in labs in the Max Planck campus and have them work shoulder to shoulder with PhDs on cutting-edge neuroscience research is an opportunity for kids that they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” said Joel Herbst, the assistant dean of preK-12 schools and educational programs at Florida Atlantic University.

FAU already runs an early-college high school that lets students pursue a bachelor’s degree while working toward their high school diplomas. The Max Planck Academy will be a new addition to the university’s programs.

Early-college high schools, also known as dual enrollment schools, exist in many forms around the country, giving teenagers a chance to accelerate their educations by pursuing two credentials at once. Particularly when these schools serve low-income teens and others who are underrepresented on college campuses, they represent a powerful way to increase college access and success, generally at no cost to students. And in partnerships with local businesses, or in FAU’s case, researchers, they can fast-track students’ careers. That’s what Herbst expects from the new academy.

“In the job market, we see a real gap between what our country needs, as far as computer scientists, and what we’re producing in our universities nationwide.”

Students’ academic focus will be on hard sciences, broadly, including neuroscience, chemistry, biology, physics and computational science. That last discipline will get an extra emphasis, which Herbst said should set students up for key jobs and successful careers.

“In the job market, we see a real gap between what our country needs, as far as computer scientists, and what we’re producing in our universities nationwide,” Herbst said. He expects students in the academy to spend some time in traditional classes like physics or biology, learning the basics for their preferred fields, and otherwise to focus on gathering skills through projects and research opportunities.

Michael Smirnov, a post-doc at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience working on neuronal signal transduction, has been leading the course for the six students studying at the institute this year. During the first semester, he taught them about artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data.

“They are being taught the cutting-edge skills in data science,” Smirnov said.

This semester, students will apply those skills and use algorithms to analyze brain images that otherwise would require hours and hours of tedious work on the part of individual researchers. The data science expertise that students now have is something new for the institute and could offer value to researchers working on a range of projects.

Students from across Florida can apply to the academy, but most will likely come from Palm Beach County, as the institute is there, in Jupiter.

For his part, Herbst hopes the model for the Max Planck Academy can be replicated in other cities with research institutes or companies that have research departments, in any field. Already about 550 students at FAU High School collaborate with Florida Atlantic University professors on their research. Students have been published in 26 peer-reviewed journals, according to Herbst, and they win awards for their research in state, national and international competitions.

The Max Planck Academy, then, will be an expansion of a model FAU High School started in 2004, when it opened with just seven students. Herbst finds the new venture particularly exciting, though, because it means collaborating “with the premiere neuroscience research institution in the world,” he said.

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