January 4, 2017

Rigorous STEM-Centered Curriculum Challenges Students At Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science

The life of the mind is celebrated at the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS). Located at 19 Lambert Drive (off Rosedale Road), the independent international boarding and day school opened in 2013, and offers a unique study and research program to a multi-cultural student body.

Executive Principal Matthew Pearce has been with PRISMS since 2014, and involved in STEM education for more than 20 years. Starting his career in London, he taught physics for students in an upper school in grades six through 12, also serving as head of physics. Coming to the U.S. in 2004, he worked for 10 years at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), which was named the number one high school in America by U.S. News & World Report. TJ emphasizes student research, and Mr. Pearce directed the Senior Research Mentorship Program while simultaneously serving as head of the science and technology division.

The opportunities at PRISMS are exciting, he reports. “This is a unique opportunity to be involved in the beginning of the school and to be able to build upon that. The idea is how do we inspire kids? Different things motivate kids. It can be parental pressure, for example. But we find that when they learn to solve problems, they begin to enjoy it, and then they want to learn more. They enjoy the process. We are teaching them to think.”

Madame Pengzhi Liu, a renowned educator in China, who was instrumental in founding the school, is Board Chair and Head of School. In a statement about PRISMS, she said, “This is a school that merges the best educational philosophies of the East and the West. With the deepening of the Sino-U.S. educational exchange, PRISMS will become the forward-looking international school with both Chinese and American characteristics.

Educational Initiative

“Relying on joint efforts in education from China and the States, we have established PRISMS. When it comes to international school development, our priority is to respect diversity and celebrate it. On such a basis, we shall strive to communicate and interact.

“We are a school of mathematics and science.” continues Madame Pengzhi Liu, “but we are so much more than only math and science in terms of our goals. We are going to train the students to be great talents in the future. PRISMS has attracted not only outstanding headmasters from the U.S. but also a great number of exceptional teachers. With such an orchestra of players from different nationalities and different cultural backgrounds, we are sure to embark on a new chapter in the history of human development, as well as a new journey of an educational initiative.”

With a current enrollment of 65 co-ed students, taught by 21 faculty members, the school offers both boarding and day accommodations, The school’s mission statement advances “an integrated STEM-centered curriculum and a research program that identifies and develops each student’s potential. Our approach promotes critical thinking, imagination, and deep curiosity, and enables students to ask meaningful questions and to contribute to a diverse and dynamic world.”

Core Beliefs

The school’s core beliefs are the following:

• Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are crucial for the advancement of civilization.

• Humanities, world languages, and the fine arts are essential for students to understand and express themselves in the context of the world around them.

• Research-based education shapes the adolescent brain in a beneficial way.

• Perseverance is an essential trait for students to develop and nurture.

• Integrity is fundamental to a responsible and meaningful life.

• Collaborative and independent learning are both essential for substantive achievement.

• The habit of excellence can be developed.

• Education should equip students to contribute positively to society.

• A healthy body and mind are essential to intellectual development and a productive life. Excellent teaching ignites a sense of wonder.”

Certainly, the love of learning is instilled at PRISMS, and the student body consists of enthusiastic, intellectually curious, talented, and committed ninth through 12th graders.

“Our curriculum is a different program than that at other schools,” points out Peter Egan, Director of Admissions. “During freshman year, the students take honors classes; sophomore year, they take all AP classes, and in junior and senior years, they do original research. Our curriculum really separates us from other schools. 20 percent of our courses are college level, beyond the AP level — from linear algebra and multi variable calculus to quantum mechanics and organic chemistry.”

Research Skills

PRISMS emphasizes the research and development process by reinforcing research skills, such as open-minded inquiry, problem-solving, and innovation, adds Mr. Egan.

“The aim is that students begin by learning research skills in order to better prepare them for meaningful research or development projects in grades 11 and 12. We accomplish this by integrating research skills into our ninth grade Bridging the Arts Science and Engineering (BASE) program, and through 10th grade core science and applied engineering courses. In grades 11 and 12, students can choose a topic in which to conduct research within one of our STEM Research and Development areas. Typically, a student will begin working on a project in the 11th grade and continue it until 12th grade.”

“In their research projects, students investigate and explore amazing frontiers. Included are identifying a new virus, designing wind turbine blades, building an underwater robot or high altitude balloons, exploring synthetic biology, molecular evolution, nano-technology, and machine vision. These are all recent and planned projects.”

Access to a remarkable range of lab equipment is available at PRISMS, notes Mr. Egan. From access to an atomic force microscope to a high resolution stereolithography 3-D printer, and from a printed circuit board mill to a mass spectrometer, the opportunities at PRISMS are what most students won’t have until their third or fourth year at a top university.

In addition to the myriad of STEM courses — engineering, AP biology, AP calculus, AP chemistry, AP computer science, AP physics, AP statistics, and those beyond AP level, such as analytical chemistry, differential equations, molecular biology and bio-technology, etc. — PRISMS students take courses in the humanities, history, language, and fine arts.

“Writing is an important part of the curriculum,” points out Mr. Egan. “You have to write well in order to present research. Students all take U.S. history, world history, literature, Spanish, French, or Mandarin. History and literature are coordinated. For example, when the students are studying ancient history, they will also study ancient literature. The same with American history, combined with American literature. This makes for an interesting program, and the students are encouraged to ask questions in class.”

First Place

Mr. Egan adds that the faculty consists of experienced and high level instructors. “All have research experience. They have PhDs, and have coordinated research. They are the best in their field, and they have a passion for their field. They think that biology — or physics — or math is the best field ever!”

The level of excellence PRISMS students have achieved was recently exemplified by senior Peter Peng, who was chosen for the six-member U.S. Olympic Math Team. Competing in the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), the six-member U.S. Team won first place. The world’s most prestigious high school math competition, the IMO hosted teams from more than 100 countries.

In addition, Princeton University has invited PRISMS students to participate in its National Chemistry Week, and also to experience the university’s instrumentation lab with its special microscopic imaging instrumentation. “This is a unique opportunity, for the students to use the microscope,” notes Mr. Egan.

“Currently,” he adds, “a PRISMS senior is taking a math class at Princeton University with Princeton juniors and seniors.”

PRISMS faculty member Adam Kemp, head of the engineering program, engages the students in community outreach via the Mini Maker Faire and World Maker Faire, serving to build excitement among younger students about math and science.

“Elementary and middle school kids come to the local Mini Maker Faire, and they get very excited about math and science, when our students show them what they have made, including robots, objects made from the 3-D printers, and their research projects,” explains Mr. Egan.

Rock Stars

“Adam and our students also attend the World Maker Faire in New York City, which is for students and adults from all around the country. Again, our students show people what they have made, and give encouragement and advice to the younger students. Adam and our students are like rock stars to these kids!”

Life at PRISMS also offers an intramural sports program, which includes soccer, basketball, tennis, cycling, and ultimate frisbee. In addition, clubs range from math, chess, and digital video clubs to working on the year book and literary magazine.

The students are also involved in community service, says Mr. Egan. “Once a week, they go to the Princeton Methodist Church to serve food. They also have helped with the Special Olympics, and we have Operation Christmas Child in which we provide boxes of toys and supplies to children in need.”

The PRISMS admission process is selective. All applicants are interviewed and screened thoroughly. A completed file consists of an application, transcripts, teacher recommendations, standardized testing SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test), and interview. “The idea is to put the incoming student in a position in which he or she can be successful,” remarks Mr. Egan.

English must be spoken by international students, and all students attend American colleges. The school year extends from September to June, and Mr. Egan adds that “We are encouraged that more people are learning about the school and that the enthusiasm and interest is growing. We‘re now fully accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.”

He and Mr. Pearce are proud that PRISMS in addition to offering the best education possible is also enabling students to build strong friendships that span cultures. As Madame Pengzhi Liu points out, “We want our students to believe this: appreciate the beauty you create yourself, admire the beauty created by others, respect the diversity in values, and this is how you create a harmonious world.”

For more information about PRISMS call (609) 454-5580 or visit the website at www.prismsus.org.