Where previous classes from the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science at Fort Hays State University had maybe 15 minutes each for a pro-forma introduction and brief presentations to the education committees of the Kansas House and Senate, the fifth KAMS class had more than an hour.
The 31 members of the Seekers, the name the high school juniors chose for their class, had four student presenters in addition to KAMS Director Ron Keller and FHSU President Edward H. Hammond, who introduced them.
The Kansas Legislature established KAMS to promote mathematics and science education, to reduce the "brain drain" in which many of the best and brightest young Kansans go away to out-of-state universities and never return, and to promote economic development by providing a well-educated workforce. Kansas was the 16th state to have an early-entry-to-college program that offers a unique residential learning experience for high-achieving high school juniors and seniors.
When they graduate, they will have a diploma from their sending high schools and at least 68 hours of college credit.
One of the points Keller emphasized was the academics of KAMS.
"I think a lot of people don’t appreciate the rigor of the curriculum,” he said, noting that many of the students had spent a couple of hours studying the night before after arriving at the hotel.
"But they chose the Kansas Academy of Math and Science because they wanted a challenge," he said.
Another point he stressed was the leadership and service aspect. Eleven KAMS students, he said, are tutoring other students in 73 course slots. Many of the students being tutored are traditional university students.
This was part of the presentation by KAMS students YeongSu Han, South Korea, Tammy Nguyen, Russell and Russell High School, Tanner Reece, Topeka and Washburn Rural High School, and Evan Shanelec, Lyons and Lyons High School.
The rest was on the benefits of KAMS and some details of what they are doing in KAMS. Han, for instance, is now involved in a research project on rocketry, after a fall 2013 research project on water vapor levels downwind of wind power generators. She told the assembled representatives and senators that she went into that project expecting to find less water vapor downwind, but instead found more, which also opens up potential research into ground moisture downwind of wind generators.
With an hour dedicated to the appearance before the joint education committee, instead of two 15-minute presentations, one to each separate committee, committee members had time to ask questions of the students. All the student presenters spoke highly, and in glowing terms, of the KAMS experience, and Director Keller assured the legislators, in introducing the Q&A session, that they would see that the student answers were not scripted.
One of the first questions was on the large international student contingent in the Seekers class. Nine of the 31 members are international -- six from China and three from South Korea. The question, specifically, was on whether and how much state tuition money supported the international students. Keller’s reply was "none."
"International students pay for everything," he said.
In later questioning, the issue of cost for Kansas students also came up. Although Kansas students pay no tuition, they do pay room and board, $7,200 per year, and on top of that is travel expense, easily another $1,000 to $1,500 or more, said Keller.
Lawmakers were also interested in differences between KAMS in the United States and the schools where international students come from. One, South Korean student SeonYeong (pronounced soon-young) "Harry" Ha, said he came from a high school in Alabama, where he was an exchange student. He, like others, noted that a huge difference between American and Asian high schools is extracurricular activities. There are none at home, he said.
Ha drew some laughter in noting two points of difference between Alabama and Korea.
At his Alabama school, he said, "They wanted me to drive. So they taught me to driver everywhere. Why, I don’t know," he said, shrugging.
"They wanted me to learn how to shoot," he said. "A gun," he added. "Why, I don’t know."
The trek to Topeka also included a visit to the two chambers, where the House and Senate each pass a resolution of appreciation. This year was no different. The students usually also visit the Kansas Board of Regents, but time with the Legislature did not permit that visit this year. They did make the annual visit to the Kansas Supreme Court, where they was introduced to Justice Eric Rosen, who gave them a short course on the Kansas judicial system and some of its history and structure.
"I really appreciate all the opportunities we get," said Katie Emerson, Topeka, from Shawnee Heights High School. "It puts you at an upper level," she said. Emerson hopes to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy.
"I want to work on submarines," she said.
Reece, one of the presenters, said that KAMS is a challenge in many ways, not only academically. The students get closer to each other than in regular high school, he said. "They have to. They live together."
But he also explained that it is more than just living together in Custer Hall. "KAMS brings together people with a set of personality traits that go with something like this." He explained, with carefully chosen words, that "something like this" means the kind of teenagers who choose to forego a lot of typical high school life to get ahead academically, who are excited at the prospect of being challenged by a more rigorous curriculum. This kind of teenager may also, he said, feel uncomfortable in a regular high school setting.
"But this brings people out of their shells," he said. "Here they can learn and grow together."