Derek Ayeh, a senior at Proviso Math and Science Academy, is a whiz kid. He knows it, and his teachers know it.

“Derek is a kid who has always known everything his entire life,” Laura Swartzbaugh, a teacher at the high school, said. “He’s never been challenged.”

When he signed up to participate in an off-campus mentorship program in which students would work alongside graduate students studying cardiac arrest at the University of Chicago, Ayeh said he really wasn’t expecting it to be too hard. On the first day, he sat in on a presentation that, he said, set the tone for the rest of the school year.

“While everyone else in the room seemed to comprehend what was going on, I just stared for an hour and a half,” Ayeh said.

Zanfina Rrahmani, a classmate of Ayeh’s and a confident student in her own right, had a similar experience. She studied response regulators in e coli bacteria at Loyola University. Upon walking in the door, Rrahmani was handed a stack of journals to read over the weekend. She barely understood a word of it.

“It was so complicated it would take me two or three hours to read one paragraph of it,” Rrahmani said.

Rrahmani, Ayeh and the 71 other magnet school seniors who took part in the program did eventually get the hang of it. Ayeh even received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago. On May 18, during a day-long symposium open to the public, the students presented their findings and revealed to the community just how capable they are. Perhaps more importantly, their abilities were revealed to themselves.

Principal Ed Moyer said he developed the mentor program as a sort of boot camp for research. It’s intense, it readies students for college and it requires a level of autonomy that many high school students probably aren’t familiar with. This year’s senior class will be the first to graduate from the recently opened Proviso Math and Science Academy, and is the first to take part in the off-campus program.

“This is your transition into adulthood,” Moyer said he told his students. “You’re going to have to do things, not because your teacher says you have to do them, but because they have to be done.”

In addition to the hard sciences studied by Ayeh and Rrahmani, students also paired with lawyers, theater companies, the Brookfield Zoo and the Yollocalli National Museum of Mexican Art. Research topics were developed over the course of the students’ junior and senior years, and had to be original work. In this way, said Moyer, the projects are vastly different from a typical classroom assignment.

“A science project almost always involves duplication of a given known,” Moyer said.

Nusra Ismail, another graduating senior and the first in her family to be accepted into college, had never set foot inside a courtroom prior to beginning her project. Ismail paired with a lawyer from DePaul University and sat in on domestic violence proceedings at the county courthouse in Maywood. She focused her research on how various police departments handle domestic violence calls.

Ismail said she also learned of what she described as a flawed system. Judges rush through the docket, courtroom guards are rude and attorneys handle their caseload with an openly aloof attitude, she said.

“If I was a victim, I wouldn’t want to be there,” Ismail said.

Swartzbaugh is one of two teachers leading the classes that participate in the mentor program. The task of placing each student fell largely to her, and it wasn’t always easy to convince colleges and working professionals to participate in a program that no one’s heard of. She met with every single mentor that signed on.

“Everything we’ve done has been new,” Swartzbaugh said. “We believe in this vision, but you don’t know [whether it will succeed] because you don’t have the kids doing it.”

Students aren’t required to participate in the program as seniors, but completing it will bring them special attention during commencement. The grade, however, becomes secondary to the integrity of the work, several students said.

“I don’t think you’ll graduate as the same person,” Rrahmani said. She credited Swartzbaugh as a tough, but inspiring teacher.

Ayeh, who said he had never been challenged in a classroom before, had his work picked apart by his mentor at the University of Chicago. He was disappointed in himself and worked that much harder to make an impression during his final presentation.

“Because I knew she was going to have such high standards, it was the first time I stayed at home and practiced for hours what I was going to say,” Ayeh said.