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Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA)

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The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) is a three-year, publicly funded (ie, tuition-free), residential high school, and a member of the National Consortium of Specialized Secondary Schools of Matematics, Science, and Technology. There are several similar schools in the United States, including ones in Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas. IMSA was founded in 1985, originally conceived by a group of eminent educators and scientists, including Nobel laureate Leon Lederman. The first class graduated in 1989, and annual enrollment is around 650 students. Despite the original goals of the school, not all students move on to higher education and careers in technology or the sciences - however, the number who do so is still quite high.

The Academy is located 35 miles west of Chicago, Illinois in proximity to Fermilab and numerous other research facilities, in what is called 'Illinois Research and Development Corridor'1.


To be admitted, students must complete an application including:

  • School transcript
  • SATscore2
  • Essays - the application poses several questions to be answered by the student, and one or two for the parent(s) as well
  • Extracurricular activities and accomplishments
  • Recommendation letters from English, mathematics, and science teachers, as well as from a counselor or school administrator.
Most students apply to IMSA during their 9th grade year3, to begin classes in 10th grade. However, each class generally includes a number of students who are accepted direclty from 8th grade - these are students who are generally well accelerated in mathematics (and sometimes other areas as well), and prepared to skip the 9th grade year. These students are labeled with the moniker 'Shmen', as they would have been 'freshmen' had they not skipped a year4. Students entering IMSA for their first year are generally between 13 and 16 years old.

As a state-wide effort, IMSA endeavours to balance the demographics of each admitted class in proportion with those of the state population, in terms of geography, gender, and ethnic or racial group. Efforts to increase the prevalence and competitiveness of applications among under-represented minority groups include outreach programs, as well as weekend and summer mathematics/science enrichment programs. As with many schools in the United States, the various attempts at increasing the diversity of the student body have met with some controversy.


Over 40% of the faculty have doctoral degrees in their subject area, and the majority of the remainder have also completed graduate work. Many faculty members were university professors prior to coming to IMSA.


During the 3 years a student spends at IMSA, they are required to complete:

  • The number of science courses required for graduation is high enough that it cannot be met without 'doubling up' - taking more than one science class at a time - for some semesters. The curriculum includes a foundation course and electives in areas such as organic chemistry, thermodynamics, astrophysics, and pathogenic microbiology,
  • 3 years of mathematics, with most students completing at least AP Calculus5, and some progressing beyond6,
  • 1 additional year of math and/or science electives,
  • 3 years of English,
  • 2.5 years of social sciences, including 1 year of American Studies and 1 year of World Studies,
  • 2 years of a foreign language, chosen from Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Russian, and
  • Additional electives, plus coursework in health and wellness, and fine and performing arts.
While IMSA is by definition a math and science-oriented school, all classes in the humanities are at the honours level as well.

Residential Life

IMSA students live in one of seven dormitories, some of which are single-sex and some of which are co-educational. Each dorm holds approximately 100 students, divided into four wings, and students living two to a room. Each wing has its own Residence Counselor (RC), an adult who supervises the students, as well as a Residence Assistant, an older student who helps the RC. There are rules regarding curfews, study periods, and entertaining visitors of the opposite sex, with rules becoming less restrictive as students progress through the program7. No school uniforms are worn - in fact, it is not unheard of for students to attend class in their pyjamas.

The school does provide limited medical and counseling services on site. Luckily for everyone, these services have improved considerably in quality over the years. The school has also made significant improvements in policies regarding students who become pregnant or are diagnosed with a mental illness.

Athletics and Other Extracurricular Activities

Given the school's focus and admissions criteria, it is not surprising that it is far from being an athletic powerhouse. Nevertheless, the school does have athletic teams that compete against local schools, and the majority of the students play at least one sport during the year. Competitive athletic teams include basketball, baseball and softball, bowling, cross country running and track, football8, golf, swimming and diving, tennis, and volleyball. Of course, the math and chess team are more popular than the basketball team in many years - not only in terms of participants, but in fan attendance!

Of course, many of the extracurricular activities are math and science-related, or otherwise of the type that you'd expect in such a place - a math honor society, a Pugwash chapter9, clubs for astronomy, medicine, engineering, and robotics, as well as competitive teams for Scholastic Bowl, Science Olympiad, American Computer Science League, and the Future Problem Solving Bowl. However, the school also has well-developed music groups, and the usual writing, politics, religious, and ethnic societies found at most American secondary schools or universities.

What makes IMSA special?

There are many schools in the United States that offer rigorous academic offerings, but IMSA has some features that are somewhat unusual among secondary schools.

Unique scheduling options

One of the numerous twists in the IMSA educational environment is the use of Wednesdays as Inquiry Days instead of class days. These are days where students have the opportunity to conduct Inquiries into topics they submit for approval in conjunction with a faculty advisor. Another major use for ‘I’ Days is the Academy’s extensive mentorship program; sending students to locations off campus at research labs, businesses, and a wide selection of alternative opportunities.

The precursor at IMSA to the 'I' day was 'Ex' days10. Previously, the Academy was on a rotating 6-day schedule (A, B, C, D, E, Ex) - A, B, and C days were largely filled with more discussion-oriented classes, D and E days were when most labs were scheduled, and Ex days were filled with independent research, mentorship opportunities, community service, tutorials, and sleeping in.

Opportunities for student research

Many students become involved in research while at IMSA, either with the guidance of faculty members or though internships at local universities, private corporations, and government laboratories. Two of the more popular places for student research internships have traditionally been Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory. Laboratory space and supplies are made available for student research, and many students have gone on to present their results at national scientific conferences or competitions.

Intersession Week

Another unusual feature is the annual Intersession Week, during which students participate in a full-time or two part-time session(s) selected beforehand in topic areas determined by whatever IMSA faculty, alumni, students, and outside facilitators choose to present, with new options each year.

Programs for other Illinois teachers and students

While IMSA’s campus focuses, for the most part, on the education of its students, the Academy also emphasizes its role in professionally developing the Illinois educational community. This portion of IMSA, known as The Center, is the nexus of efforts like the online high school and a series of high school math textbooks crafted with the assistance of IMSA faculty members. There are also enrichment programs offered during both the school year and the summer vacation for non-IMSA students.

1It sounds cheesy, but there are even signs on Interstate 88 designating it so.2The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is the test normally taken in the US by high school juniors and seniors for university admissions.3Generally, this is age 14 to 15 in the United States, but a decent percentage of IMSA students have skipped a grade or two, and are often somewhat younger.4In the US, students in the first year of secondary school are known as freshmen, the second year are sophomores, then juniors, and then seniors.5Advanced Placement (AP) classes in the United States are university-level classes taken while in secondary school. With a sufficient score on the national exam for the course, students can sometimes receive university credit.6Upper level mathematics electives include Number Theory, Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra.7And, not surprisingly, rules become more restrictive in response to infractions.8This is Association Football (Soccer) rather than American Football (Gridiron).9Pugwash is an organization devoted to bringing 'scientific insight and reason to bear on threats to human security arising from science and technology in general, and above all from the catastrophic threat posed to humanity by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction'.10The 'Ex', of course, stood for 'Exploration'.

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