Stephen Floor couldn't find his life's calling at Free State High School. It was in another galaxy.
More than five years ago, the gifted computer whiz was so disgruntled by the daily grind at FSHS that he dropped out with only eight months remaining in his senior year. He bounced around a series of jobs, not sure what his future held.
These days, he has different priorities. He has his General Educational Development diploma, is a junior at Kansas University and has published two papers on the shapes of galaxy clusters.
Last week, his transformation from aimless dropout to cosmic scholar got another boost when he was awarded a Goldwater scholarship, one of the most prestigious honors given to undergraduate scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
"It's a big turnaround," said his father, KU biology professor Erik Floor. "It was some kind of a miracle."
Stephen Floor said he decided to drop out of school in October 1998 -- during his senior year of high school -- because he didn't feel inspired or motivated. He needed only one course to complete his graduation requirements, but policy at the time required him to take a full course load for two semesters.
The decision confounded Floor's parents, who had seen him teach himself to read at age 3 and who had enrolled him in a gifted school in Madison, Wis., when he was younger.
"We obviously knew this was a bright kid, so this was very tough on us as parents," Erik Floor said. "He was sure sounding like he was hating high school. He had no motivation, and he didn't know what he wanted to do."
Change of heart
Stephen Floor worked several jobs, including a telemarketing position and a job at the Community Mercantile, while his classmates finished their senior year.
In April 1999, he said he suddenly realized he had little chance of a promising future without attending college.
"One night I was sitting around, and I had an epiphany," Floor said. "I honestly don't know what changed. Something switched on, and I felt like going to school."
Floor took the GED, received high marks and then decided to take two KU courses that summer.
He remembers sitting in a religion course, listening to professor Paul Mirecki read from a copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was when he fell in love with learning.
"Professors in college know what they teach; they come to class and they're happy because they're loving the subject, and they explain why they love it," Floor said. "High school teachers are there, and they teach what they're forced to teach. It's stagnant."
Floor, 22, expects to graduate in May 2005 with degrees in computer science and physics and astronomy.
He has worked two years on research with Adrian Melott, a professor of physics and astronomy. The research uses computer simulations to measure the time it takes gravity to round out galaxy clusters, which helps determine the age of the universe.
Floor presented his findings at conferences last summer in Denmark, Estonia and Greece.
"Stephen is one of the best undergraduate research assistants I've had at KU," said Melott, who has taught at the university since 1986.
Floor was one of 310 students who won a Goldwater scholarship this year, which provides up to $7,500 for tuition, fees and other expenses. Dyan Vogel, a KU junior from Overland Park, also won this year.
An alternate road
Floor's educational path is not only far from the norm for a Goldwater scholar, it's uncommon for any university student. Only 27 of the 20,692 undergraduate students at KU this fall received GEDs, as opposed to receiving high school diplomas.
"I don't know what gets into young people sometimes, but I think he was probably bored and wanted to do his own thing," said Barbara Schowen, the retired director of the University Honors Program who helped Floor complete his Goldwater application. "We don't see this a lot at all, but this does happen that very bright students do tune out for a few years. Sometimes they're very bright and need to be turned on again."
Joel Frederick, a counselor at FSHS, said he'd seen that phenomenon as well. While the school district attempts to reach all students by offering advanced placement classes and allowing them to take KU courses, he said, some students still don't feel challenged by high school.
"College is definitely a different animal, and some students really respond to that," he said.
Frederick said students could learn from staying in high school, even if they didn't feel inspired in the classroom.
"There are lessons to be learned by grinding it out," he said. "Life is like that, you seldom get a job that you enjoy 100 percent. I think there are lessons in that instead of just running away from it. But can (getting a GED) work for some kids? Yes, and it has."
Floor, Frederick said, appears to be one of those cases.
Example for others
After graduating from KU, Floor plans to attend graduate school and someday develop the computer models he now uses to map galaxies.
He sees the Goldwater scholarship as a validation of the decision he made five years ago to return to school. He hopes his story inspires other dropouts to return to classes.
"This has profoundly affected me," Floor said of the Goldwater. "I don't have a 4.0 GPA. I didn't have a stellar high school background with 50 (advanced placement) credits. Being a person who dropped out of high school, having something like this on a resume is nice. But more than that, it helps me as a person know I'm doing the right thing."