The 40 seniors arrive before 7 a.m. for class at the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, but most are gone by mid-morning, off to research labs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, biotech parks and airports.
Once there, they tackle all manner of ambitious science projects of their own design, while partnered with a highly skilled mentor.
Senior Brian Herget of Abingdon drives to an airplane hangar in Essex, where he completes a comparative study of the efficiency of the combustion engine at different temperatures.
He earned his pilot's license last fall and knows aerodynamics and his way around the airport. As part of his senior research project, Herget has been studying at the facility daily with his mentor since September.
On a recent visit to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Herget said he saw "so many parallels between what I am doing now and what I will be doing there.
"I feel like I have been taking college-level courses the last four years," he said.
Herget will attend the university, which he calls "the Harvard of the air," this fall. It happens to be the alma mater of his mentor, Chuck Deitrick, director of aircraft maintenance for McCormick & Co.
"I see a maturity level with these kids and advanced decision-making skills for now and into the future," said Deitrick, whose daughter is a sophomore at the academy.
Many of Herget's schoolmates in the academy's first graduating class have won acceptance to and scholarships from some of the country's most prestigious colleges, including the Johns Hopkins University, Drexel University, Temple University, the University of Maryland and Illinois Institute of Technology.
"We had no reputation and only the bare bones at the start, but parents and kids put their faith in us," said Donna Clem, the academy's coordinator. "And it's paying off. I think colleges recognize the effort it took these kids to pioneer in this program."
The Army Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports programs and agencies at APG, urged the board of education to establish the academy as a magnet school within a school. It opened four years ago on the third floor of Aberdeen High School.
Now, about 200 students, 50 per grade, follow a curriculum steeped in mathematics and science, while participating in school activities with their peers studying at the high school.
"We had the homecoming king this year, and that means we are in," Clem said. "With a school within a school, you never really know if students will be accepted."
The students' studies culminate with a senior research project, known as Capstone.
"I see real science research happening and the scientific process at work," said Misty Tomcanin, chemistry teacher. "These kids are motivated and great to work with. They really want to learn."
The seniors choose a mentor who shares an interest in their studies.
Alyssa Ramirez of Bel Air worked with Shane Bartus of the Army Research Lab. The student has been able to simulate the impact of blunt force as she investigates protective materials for sporting goods.
"She has done an excellent job," Bartus said. "I am just flabbergasted at the level at which these students are working."
The volunteer mentors come from agencies at APG or from area businesses.
"Every student finds a mentor who will collaborate on a project of interest," said Aaron League, a senior from Pylesville who has worked closely with Rob Lieb, a physicist at the Army Research Lab at APG.
Lieb shared equipment, including a $150,000 electron microscope, with League. A wind tunnel on base helped the student with his research into the effect of air on automobiles.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski visited the academy last week, interviewed several students and their mentors and presented the academy with a $300,000 grant. The money will go toward equipment, teacher training, enrichment field trips for students and possibly a new summer workshop. The grant brings the total of federal money awarded to the school to about $1 million.
Mikulski said she is focusing much of her efforts in Congress on developing a well-educated work force.
"We must invest so that our country has the talent it needs," said Mikulski, as she was surrounded by students in the academy's chemistry lab. "These students have the freedom to achieve and to achieve great things for the United States. We are counting on them to lead our nation."
When Jacob Burlin of Abingdon described his research into decontaminating chemical warfare agents, Mikulski said, "Wow! I hope you get it right."
The academy plans a research symposium and gala celebration in May that will celebrate the graduates, showcase their senior projects and offer a thank you to mentors and parents.
"These kids were guinea pigs and they have done a great job," said Tomcanin, who has taught the seniors for four years. "They have set good stepping stones for kids who follow them in the program."
Clem says she hopes many of the graduates will return to the academy with their advanced degrees and volunteer as mentors.
"Our kids are risk-takers and pioneers," she said. "They have made their mark and will affect every kid who comes behind them."