KHI News Service

Academy aimed at plugging state brain drain

Two-year program gives high schools' brightest a jump on college math and science

By Phil Cauthon | December 24, 2012

Morgan Murray is too young to have any idea who Doogie Howser is, but the 16-year-old from Shawnee is cut from a cloth similar to the prodigy doctor in the '90s TV show.

Even while finishing high school and getting a jump on college, Murray finds time to be flown across the country several times a year to help teach doctors twice her age how to perform challenging tracheal intubations, a procedure to get oxygen to patients with blocked airways.

"It's a very high-stress, very time-oriented procedure," said Murray. "I am helping teach the doctors how to intubate using high-fidelity simulators. I act as their nurse, getting them anything they need. Then I help debrief and tell them what they can do better."

Murray came into the teaching opportunity while sitting in on classes, which were taught by her mother. Two years ago, the instructor in the nurse role was out sick, and Murray seized the opportunity to fill in.

Now Murray is seizing another opportunity to get a jump on her career at the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science.

The two-year program is a sort of fast-track boarding school at Fort Hays State University. Each year, up to 40 high school juniors from across the state move into a campus dorm and complete their last two years of high school coursework while also taking college math and science courses.

The Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science is currently accepting applications for 2014 at Applications are due by Jan. 1.

Murray said that the academy — often called KAMS by students — provides an environment where staff and other students drive each other to set goals high.

"I've been wanting to pursue medicine since I was in third grade," Murray said. "KAMS has pushed me to do even more than I thought I could. I've done more in this semester than I thought was even possible."

Plugging the brain drain

Murray is one of 68 students currently enrolled in the academy. Another 53 students have graduated from KAMS since the first class in 2009.

The Kansas Legislature founded KAMS in 2006, in part to give students like Murray a learning opportunity in Kansas that would challenge the state's most talented students, said director Ron Keller.

Courtesy Ft. Hays State University

The first class to graduate from the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science, with director Ron Keller.

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"The academy was formed to keep the students here in the state — to keep intellectual capital from leaving Kansas, to keep from losing our best and brightest kids," Keller said.

Former State Rep. Kenny Wilk was one of the legislators who pushed for the academy. He said it also was intended to help contribute to the long-term success of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which was created the year before and which he also had a hand in. Wilk now works for the University of Kansas Hospital and is a member of the Kansas Board of Regents.

"We are going to invest tens of millions of dollars into growing this new sector of the Kansas economy in biosciences. If you believe that's going to work, you're going to need a workforce to support it. We felt we needed a way to incent more bright young people to stay here," Wilk said.

The program was modeled after similar efforts in 15 other states, including Missouri, Texas and Illinois.

Tuition, books and fees for the program cost about $7,000 a year per student, said Keller. That is paid for by the per-pupil state education aid — currently about $3,700, which otherwise would go to the student's high school — and an additional state appropriation of about $3,300 for up to 40 Kansas students.

The student's family is responsible for room and board, which is also about $7,000 per year.

Students graduate with at least 68 hours of college credit in math and sciences, and some students graduate with even more, Keller said.

Janae Carter of Andover was in the first KAMS class in 2009.

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"It is an extremely rigorous curriculum. Our kids are taking college chemistry I and II, lab and lecture, physics for engineers I and II, college biology, calculus I and II," he said. "Some kids go on to take calc III, differential equations, linear equations. They're way ahead and beyond where any other kids might be."

In addition to the 40 Kansas students, up to eight national or international students are eligible for the program but do not receive state aid — those students pay $27,000 each year. Currently, six students from South Korea and China are in the program, and a seventh from China has graduated.

Retaining recruits

Academy students have access to the university's facilities and organizations like other Fort Hays students.

Brad Leupold, a high school junior from Hiawatha, said he joined the Pre-Med Club, where one of the activities is "Dinner With Doctors."

"Different doctors from the community talk about their field and medical school," Leupold said. "I liked talking to one of the cardiologists — it was very interesting. So maybe I'll possibly go that route."

From talking with doctors, he's become aware of the shortage of family physicians in small towns across the state.

"The local physicians definitely try to steer you in that direction. They need doctors in small towns," Leupold said. "I understand that need, but at the same time I understand why people want to specialize. Right now I'm not really for sure on an exact field.”

Regardless, he said he sees himself staying somewhere in Kansas, most likely near Kansas City.

"I like Kansas and I'll probably stay here. I like the mix between the city and the not-so-crazy, more quiet side — and Kansas gives you that," Leupold said.

Nearly half of KAMS students have expressed interest in a career in medicine, Keller said, but it's too early to know how many of the first class will go on to medical school. It will be many more years, officials said, before it's clear how effective the program is at keeping bright students in Kansas.

"We encourage them to stay here," Keller said. "The ones I've talked to who are looking at going out of state for school, the majority of them are still looking at coming back to Kansas for their career and to establish their life."

Supporting success

When Kansas Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan was in the state Senate and wrote the bill to establish KAMS in 2006, he had in mind kids who were skilled in math and science but did not have an outlet at school that matched their potential, he said.

Nick Jordan, Kansas Secretary of Revenue and former legislator who wrote the bill establishing KAMS.

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"There are really some bright kids that, when they get into their high school years, they really are not challenged by their classes. We kept hearing that these kids would lose interest in science and math," Jordan said.

Yet in the job market, demand continues to grow in the state and nation for people with math and science skills, he said.

"If you're going to build the workforce for the future — and as interested as we've been in trying to get the biosciences, innovation and entrepreneurship going in Kansas — this is an essential part of our future success in building the Kansas economy," Jordan said.

He said he visited the academy recently with some Kansas business leaders and already saw evidence of the program's success.

"When we asked them questions like, 'Do you miss being home?'" Jordan said, "The kids said 'Yes, but we've become a family with the other students.'"

When asked about their plans for spring break, the students talked about their research projects, he said.

One of those students is Katie Goebel, a high school senior from El Dorado who plans to study pediatric trauma and possibly tropical medicine thanks to an interest sparked by project work at KAMS.

"The project I'm working on for my senior project relates to malaria rates and climatic factors in Ghana. So that's sparked my interest in that field, too. I'm hoping to travel there soon, if not this summer then hopefully during my undergraduate career," Goebel said.

She said during her time at the academy, she has missed family and friends at times but she has no reservations about missing out on a traditional junior and senior year in high school.

"Overall I think it's much better here, where everyone is supportive of your academic interests," Goebel said.

"When I was in my high school, I felt like I couldn't tell people about the good grades I got, because I might get made fun of or they would feel bad that they didn't do as well," she said. "But here it's a good thing to get good grades, and people are proud of it."

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