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Vickroy: Love of science makes teens pioneers in international program

Vladimir Shiltsev (left) sets up telescope Oak Forest home Andy Beahan (second from right). JasLorenz peers through scope while Andy

Vladimir Shiltsev (left) sets up a telescope at the Oak Forest home of Andy Beahan (second from right). Jason Lorenz peers through the scope while Andy and Misha Shiltsev (far right) wait their turns. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 30, 2013 7:42AM



Some kids are passionate about video games. Some live and breathe sports.

For Andy Beahan, Jason Lorenz and Misha Shiltsev, nothing unleashes the adrenaline quite like a cool science experiment.

So imagine the elation when all three 15-year-olds learned just recently that they are about to become part of one.

“I am very excited about this, and just a little nervous,” said Andy, 15, who wants to be a biochemist or medical researcher one day.

Andy and Jason, both of whom live in Oak Forest, and Misha, from Batavia, have been chosen to participate in the inaugural class of Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science in Princeton, N.J.

Along with Daren Sia, of Elmwood Park, and Noble Hwang, of Sugar Grove, they are the only students from Illinois to be accepted into the coeducational, nondenominational private boarding school program. At a going-away party Saturday at Andy’s home, the boys chatted about their upcoming adventure. But when Misha’s dad, Vladimir Shiltsev, revealed he had a telescope in the family van, well, talk turned to the Transit of Venus and other astronomical events.

The boys will head east this weekend and prepare to start classes Sept. 9.

Called PRISMS, the school will provide “a rigorous inquiry-driven education for highly talented students who have a passion for math and science,” said Dr. Glenn “Max” McGee, former director of the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. McGee recently retired from Illinois education but was tapped to be the first head of the school for the PRISMS program.

“This is a unique experience for international collaboration,” McGee said.

Only 20 American students were chosen to attend. They will be joined by 20 international students, mostly Chinese. The teens will live in dormitories. Their studies will focus primarily on math and science, although they will still learn history and English. In addition, all have a choice of learning either Chinese or Spanish.

“The program is modeled after IMSA but will be on a much smaller scale,” McGee said. “We’ll also be starting younger, with students in eighth grade.”

By the time they graduate, McGee said, “The students will have had three years of authentic research under their academic belts. And they will have worked with students from around the world.”

Andy said, “This is way higher math. You can go as fast or as slow as you want.”

For Jason, who wants to be a research and development engineer one day, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, even though it means leaving his new puppy, Maverick, behind.

“I wasn’t really into school when I was little,” Jason said.

“It wasn’t until I got to middle school and then high school that I finally understood why I had to go.”

Jason and Andy are friends. They played on the golf team at Oak Forest High School freshman year. After Andy received an invitation to PRISMS, Jason applied and was accepted.

Paula Beahan, a third-grade teacher at Mae Jemison School in Hazel Crest, said knowing her only child has a buddy to accompany him will help with the transition.

“I have my moments,” she said. “I am going to miss him, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I would never say, ‘You can’t go because I will miss you.’ ”

Andy’s dad, Mike Beahan, said, “I think the fact that he wants to go is very mature. I’m happy he’s concerned for his future.”

Misha, too, received a personal invitation to enroll in PRISMS. His dad is director of the accelerator physics center at Fermilab.

Misha wants to be an engineer. He wasn’t happy with the block schedule at Batavia High School.

“I want to study science all year, not just for a part of the year,” he said.

After visiting the PRISMS site, where faculty members will live among the students and learning won’t be limited to classroom time, he was sold.

“We’ll get to study all three sciences — chemistry, biology and physics — concurrently,” he said. “I really like the challenge of the curriculum.”

Most of the students accepted into the pilot class are on scholarship, McGee said. And some, like Andy, had applied to IMSA but were not accepted.

McGee said test scores were not a criterion for acceptance.

“We looked at transcripts and teacher recommendations,” McGee said. “We’re looking for people who like to learn differently, and who have demonstrated talent and passion for science.”

Both Jason and Andy attended Oak Forest grammar schools. Courtney Orzel, superintendent of Forest Ridge School District 142, said, “As a district, we’re incredibly proud of these students.”

The district strives to provide strong foundational skills in math and science, she said.

“We have a strong partnership between home and school,” she said. “And we have very high standards.”

McGee said full rollout of the PRISMS program, with students entering as early as eighth grade, will begin in fall 2014.

He added that the start-up school is in no way meant to be an indictment of the current school system in the United States.

“There are so many good schools in Illinois,” McGee said. “The PRISMS program is for students who just want to learn differently.”



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