Students gain knowledge through exploratory research


Julia Henry and Abby Amish discuss the class with AER instructor Jun Shen. Students had the opportunity to connect with their mentors at the welcome breakfast in September.

Griffin Kristensen, Business Manager

Junior Isabella Saunders has always had a strong passion for fashion, so when she was deciding which classes to take this year, Authentic Exploratory Research (AER) peaked her interest. 

“Being a junior in high school, I am starting to think about my career path. This project helps me decide if fashion marketing is what I want to pursue,” said Saunders.

A new course offering for 11th and 12th-graders, AER is designed to expand students’ strengths and passions by allowing them to research a topic of interest deeply and learn through the direct mentorship of an industry expert. The class is unique in that students use real-world skills to solve present-day problems. Students also work independently the majority of the time and only meet with their instructor once a week.

“I keep track of their progress through various online tools, but the key philosophy of this course is for students to mostly do this on their own and out of their love of their topics,” said AER instructor Jun Shen.

Saunders and other students have enjoyed the freedom of working outside of the classroom on topics that interest them. The experience develops better time management skills and how to interact formally with a professional mentor. 

Grace Peterson exchanges ideas about her research project with her staff mentor.

Prior to the start of the year, Shen and AER Mentorship Coordinator Jennifer Lundblad interviewed future students so that they could begin to recruit mentors aligned with students’ research interests. The mentors play a vital role in guiding students’ research by offering advice, providing key information and connecting students with people in the industry.

Students have the first four weeks of the school year to choose the exact topic they would like to research and to develop an outline. After this process, students finally connect with a mentor in their field and begin their exploration.

“I decided to research the topic of Fashion Marketing. I have always been interested in fashion and wanted to get to know the marketing side of the business,” said Saunders.

For her project, Saunders decided to research if today’s youth fashion brands are in touch with their customers. In order to investigate this question, she is sending out surveys and conducting interviews with the top fashion companies for today’s youth to see what grabs the attention of today’s generation. She will also send out similar surveys to these brands’ customers and analyze how the responses compare. 

At the end of the day, Saunders and other students acquire high-level research and professional skills along with traditional academic skills such as time management, writingF and listening.

“The main benefits of AER are the satisfaction of exploring one’s curiosity and contributing to solving a real-world problem,” said Shen.

To see the amazing work the AER students are doing this year, go to