Research at its core: The Bergen County Academies
Bergen County Academies, New Jersey, is a rather difficult school to understand, for two reasons: One, because in its current form is only 20 years old and is still finding its feet and two, because their approach is so overwhelming for someone interested in students undertaking research projects while at high school that much of what I’m about to write will simply seem unbelievable. It did leave me asking ‘what’s the catch?’ but this is a live blog and I’m yet to find it…come back later and look for edits! What I experienced at BCA was incredible and I’m well aware that it would be incredibly difficult to emulate in the UK but there are plenty of elements that schools could explore.
Incidentally, this school features in a book about some of the top schools in the US. The initial thought when you think about exemplars of ‘the best’ or ‘high achieving’ might be exam factory or rich independent. However, BCA’s history is as a vocational college and, while it is located in the suburbs of New Jersey in a relatively wealthy area, students are selected from various locations and there is certainly a demographic mix in the school population. In fact, you have to put all prejudices and assumptions aside and just look at what is happening, right now, in Bergen…!
My host for the visit was the permanently cheerful Dr David Reeves (from Birmingham, England as it turns out). He has been at BCA for the last year or so ostensibly as technical support because of his experience in the maker program in NYC for the past few years, but is also mentoring a number of research students and will be teaching regular classes next year. He is also a terrific polymath, in fact most of the teachers I met at BCA are! Dave is an expert in 3d printing, he is a PhD biochemist an electron microscopist, he’s an electronics whizz and seemed to have an active interest in photogrammetry (among many many other things). Ok so what…well, this gives a hint about BCA – all of those skills are not just of interest to the students, but vital to their chosen areas of research! The structure of the school, the timetables of staff and students and the technical support is all geared towards research.
The principle, Russel Davis is quite clear about the vision and how the school not just supports science research but the whole ethos of the place is based on students undertaking active long term original research. The concept is embedded in the life of the school – not for exam success (that already happens…possible cause and effect?!) but to prepare gifted students for the next stage in their lives with skills needed for 21st century careers and challenges. Something is working – BCA are award winners.
Have a quick look at the research pages of the BCA website and you’ll see examples of genuine research using state of the art technology that has been presented at International specialist conferences like microscopy and microanalysis (where BCA are again chairing the education sessions). To facilitate this a number of things are in place;
- Timetable and school structure. BCA has an extended day, this means that they run from around 8am until 4.10pm with timetabled classes. Like any school there are extra-curricular clubs and societies that meet outside of these times, but importantly the research program sits within the timetable and so students have official time where they are supposed to be working on projects (although inevitably they end up in the lab rather more than their allocated timetable time!)
- They are lucky enough to be able to arrange teachers timetables to provide lots of lab supervision an mentoring time. This is to allow the students as much time in the lab (oh – and by lab I mean anywhere where research is taking place – the microbiology lab, the nanoparticle synthesis lab, the robotics facility, the virtual reality suite…! Etc.) and importantly access to mentoring, as possible.
- Staff expertise. Much is made at BCA of staff having ‘past lives’ – ex-academics or people working in a variety of industries. Those experiences and skills that can be mined by students. Departments can adjust the loading of staff depending on numbers of student resarchers where some teachers excel at teaching core courses others can concentrate on the advanced placement or provide elective ‘introduction to …’ particular research programs – taken as a class for credit that counts towards the students final high school grade.
- As an ex vocational college AND in a wealthy area of the country, BCA enjoys a healthy ‘per student’ funding arrangement. This goes a long way to providing the sort of staff flexibility that can facilitate the research. This is absolutely fine in itself but the vocational thread allows extra funding geared towards training specific skills – of course these are 21st century skills – nanotechnology, coding, advanced microscopy, genetics etc. and hence their labs are well equipped. No. that’s an understatement – this is the stuff you’d see in a university research facility let alone a university teaching lab.
- Magic Wednesdays! A suprising element of each week is what the students get up to on a Wednesday. While there are some regular classes, for two hours all except the seniors sign up to a year-long project – this in addition to any personal research projects and there is no restriction on what they can choose. It is a group project and the variety is phenomenal – from building mandarins to setting up a biotech company (oh – and the school has an IP lawyer on retainer because some of the stuff coming out of the Wednesday projects has real potential!)
- Senior Wednesdays. While the rest of the students are working on their group projects the seniors spend the day out on an internship. Another example of where internships are very much part of the culture. Unmeasurable impact when it comes to exams but BCA believes very much that this experience enhances the student’s skillset when they leave school.
There is no doubt that there is pressure on the students, and not all of them produce nationally recognised, prize winning work. But that’s not necessarily the point. All of the teaching staff were keen to emphasise their belief that learning how to do research helps the students in many ways beyond just delving deeply into a subject. They see much better time management and personal motivation throughout the year. Communication both written and oral is well developed and this absolutely cuts across all subjects and disciplines. One of the biggest concerns was the experience of failure – experiments not working, doggedly attempting variations on a technique or simply using failure as a learning process. This is something that students rarely experience especially with increasing reliance on exam results. Failing within a research context builds resilience.
Bob Pergolizzi was there near the start of the research-led curriculum. He is absolutely convinced that it can allow students to shine far more than a regular exam-led curriculum would, and can cite many students that have passed through his lab over the years as great examples.
Ok, it’s not all sweetness and light. The all-inclusiveness brings with it the challenges where some pupils are not as motivated or because of other commitments able to put in the hours. A couple of teachers mentioned that the sheer number of students choosing their particular area of expertise made it difficult to give them all the required mentoring time. Since timetables are stretched they suggested that some form of selection for those students that aren’t pulling their weight or altering the balance of credit for the research element of the curriculum may help.
I was also lucky enough to have my first experience of virtual reality. One of the students has taken on an internship IN the school with Scott Lang (who runs the visual media and VR technology lab) and is developing a VR experience for Ellis Island museum. Having just done my tourist bit I was keen to see what they had come up with. They are gamifying the museum experience by allowing users to interact with characters within the VR environment, important elements of history or experience as an immigrant will be explored. The Ellis Island immigration hall and medical centre has been reproduced and it is hoped that the final version will be used as an experience at the visitor centre.
I’ll end this with an anecdote which I think exemplifies the beauty of the embedded research ethos and demonstrated for me the incredible maturity of the BCA students. One of Dr Reeves’ students Meghan (11th grade – year 12), happened to have a mentor meeting while I was visiting the microscopy suite. I asked her about her project and where she was hoping to go with it. As it turns out, she was looking at dinosaur bones and whether it was possible for organic matter to be preserved in some way (or traces of) in the fossil record. After a fruitful discussion about electron microscopy and x-ray analysis which she will be using in her project, she handed me a recent Nature paper on the subject. As it turns out two of the co-authors were ex-colleagues of mine and I was able to reach out to one of them and help with a little bit of networking. While the electron microscopy community may be a small world (ahem!) Megan got a real taste of one aspect of research that people often forget – networking and community. Megan is keen to follow up on this and I wish her luck with her project.
Many many thanks to all at BCA for hosting my visit – notably principle Russ Davis who gave me valuable insights into the inner workings of the school, David Becker my initial contact and co-host, Alyssa Waldron who let me invade not only her microscopy lab but let me observe teaching and research lessons, Mark Tronicke who’s enthusiasm for great education is infectious, and all the other teachers who gave up their time to talk to me, at length, about their work.