PRIMES and RSI

I am starting yet another part-time job as the Head Mentor at PRIMES, a new MIT research program for high schoolers. I am very excited about this program, for it will be valuable not only to kids who want to become researchers, but also to kids who just want to see what research is like. Kids who want to learn to think in a new way will also find it highly useful.

PRIMES is in many ways similar to RSI, which it augments and complements. There are also a lot of differences. Keep in mind that I am only comparing PRIMES to the math part of RSI, with which I was working as a coordinator for two years. I do not know how RSI handles other sciences.

Different time scale. RSI lasts six weeks; PRIMES will take about a year. I already wrote about some peoples’ skepticism towards RSI in my piece called “Fast Food Research?.” PRIMES creates a more natural pace for research.

Choices. Because of the time schedule at RSI, students get their project as soon as they start. Students who realize by the end of the second week that they do not like their project are at a disadvantage: if they do not change their project, they’re stuck with something that does not inspire them or is too difficult, and if they do change their project, they won’t have enough time to do a great job. At PRIMES students will have time to talk to the mentors before starting their project, so that they can participate in choosing their project. Depending on how it goes later, they’ll have time to try several different directions. I believe that the best research comes from the heart: students who have the time and opportunity to shape their choices will be more invested in their project.

Application process. At RSI, The Center for Excellence in Education reviews the applications. Even though they usually do a superb job at sending us great students, I believe it would be an advantage if mentors were able to influence the review process, for they might find even better matches to their projects. At PRIMES, the mentors will have this opportunity to review the applications.

Geography. RSI accepts students from all over the US and from some other countries. PRIMES can only accept local students — those who live close enough to visit MIT once a week for four months. Because of this restriction, PRIMES is recruiting from a smaller pool of students than RSI. But for local students it means that it will be easier to get accepted to PRIMES than to RSI.

Coaching. At RSI, students get a lot of coaching. I think that every student is in close contact with four adults. Two of them are from the math department — mentor and coordinator (that’s me!) — and two tutors from CEE. PRIMES will have less coaching. A student will have a mentor and me, the head mentor. In addition, mentors might arrange for students to talk to the professors who originated their projects.

Immersion. RSI students are physically present. They are housed at MIT with the expectation that they completely devote their time to their research. Students at PRIMES will be integrating their research into the rest of their lives and their commitments. That will require good organizational skills and a lot of self-discipline. RSI students have discipline imposed on them by their situation — which may be an advantage to them.

Olympiads. While they are at RSI, students can’t go to IMO or other summer activities. This is why many strong Olympiad students choose not to go to RSI, or they turn down an RSI acceptance if in the meantime they have gotten on to an Olympic team. At PRIMES you can do both. It is possible to go to an Olympiad, in addition to writing a paper.

Grade. RSI students have to be juniors. There are no grade limitations for PRIMES. Thus, it is possible to go to PRIMES in one’s senior year. In this case, it may be too late to use PRIMES on college applications, but it is perfectly fine for the sake of research itself. Or it might be possible to go to PRIMES as a sophomore, and then apply for RSI the next year. This will strengthen the student’s application for RSI.

RSI is well-established and has proven itself. PRIMES is new and hopefully will offer young mathematicians additional opportunities to try research.

I think that the American system of education creates a lot of pressure for teachers to drill their students for standardized tests and multiple choice questions. This blocks creative thinking. Every program like PRIMES is very good for unleashing students’ creativity and contributing to the development of the future thinkers of American society.