Doing Science Right

By Wendy Gardner

No science teacher worth her salt would argue that studying cell structure can be replaced with another model. Students need the scientific building blocks before conducting research, just as they need a firm grounding in grammar to start writing. But students can gain a richer understanding and appreciation of science if schools move beyond the boundaries of the science classroom to conduct hands-on research. Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y., achieves this with a program that can be replicated in any district.

The program started more than 20 years ago with an “aha” moment between science teacher Robert Pavlica and one of his Advanced Placement (AP) biology students. The student told him that he’d taken all the high school’s advanced science classes, but he still didn’t know anything about science. All he’d done, he said, was memorize for exams. Instead, he told his teacher, he wanted to do science.

In response, the Byram Hills school district launched in 1989 what is now the Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research program. Watching this student develop his biology experiment, Pavlica recognized the value of moving students out of the classroom into the research lab and the field. He understood that replicating experiments with known outcomes in the classroom lab was only a beginning. To blossom, nascent scientists must conduct original research.

He presented his plan for an innovative course to school trustees, persuading an initially reluctant board to provide funding for this new vision for teaching science. Today, the class has become an internationally recognized science research program supported by four faculty members who guide more than 80 students a year through a three-year, hands-on research experience.

I wasn’t a member of the board at that time, but I served as a Byram Hills trustee for nine years after the program began. My favorite meetings were those that showcased student accomplishments. Every year, the senior Science Research students described their work. As we listened to titles like “Nutrient Limitation and Autotoxicity in the Red Tide Dinoflagellate Alexandrium fundyense” or “Recall Responses to the Her-2jneu Oncaprotein in Patients with Ovarian and Breast Cancer,” we recognized that our high school students were dealing with topics vital to medicine, industry, public policy -- and which leapt beyond our comprehension.

My own two daughters each completed the Science Research program. I now look back at the course as one of those rare transformative experiences that we all wish for our children. Although my younger daughter will not continue her work in marine biology, the topic of her high school project, in college she received an internship in computer science research and is now applying to a doctorate program in that field. My older daughter, now a graduate student, continues her research at the intersection of epidemiology and entomology, an interest that she initially discovered in high school.

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