Getting ‘a head’ in research at North Penn High School
North Penn HS – The future is NEAR
(Nanotechnology Education And Research…at North Penn high school)
North Penn high school is a vast and complex operation. With over 3000 students from all backgrounds and with a huge variety of abilities this high school is truly catering for the whole community (I will return to this idea later.) They have a phenomenal sports program, a cadet force active at 6am every day (!), an incredibly strong support structure for those with special educational needs and, as you’d expect, the full gamut of opportunities for AP classes for the brighter students. Within this set up it might be difficult to do anything different, after all, just the logistics of moving students around between classes and timing their lessons is a challenge. However, superstar teacher (and probably the most humble man about his achievements I’ve ever met) Mike Boyer has lit metaphorical* firework over in the technology block. As a new department chair and with a fantastic, truly enthusiastic team behind him the department is going from strength to strength (with major expansion likely next year and the ability for students to gain college credit if they take the full range of technology electives via project lead the way) and has Mike’s research class as the jewel in the crown. (*actually probably some real ones too, but I’d hesitate to confirm that…!)
Whereas most of the visits have centred on teachers with particular backgrounds in science or technology, Mike Boyer’s journey was a little different. Having made a bee line for architecture, he took some education courses at college and was hooked – “I found that I was born to teach.” Since he can’t seem to sit still, Mike very quickly looked for opportunities to further his understanding and skills and took the opportunity to get involved with a research experience program for teachers at Drexel University, Philadelphia.
Being part of the research community, Mike found that the process of research was inspirational, not just for his teaching but in the application to the way students learn; “Students have to learn, not memorise, [they have to] experience it.” Having found the program a positive experience he went back the following summer, wrote a whole new curriculum and then went back for two more summers while formulating the now-successful nanotechnology research program. Mike firmly believes that the students gain much more from the research experience including the use of the real equipment and apparatus than from traditional lessons; “everything [they do] is applicable… [they have to] reflect back on previous work, what they did, why they did it… the mind-set of growth.”
I was lucky enough to visit two days of lessons which included the NEAR classes. As with the other schools, the research is facilitated by two key things – the teacher and TIME. However, thus far Mike has had to apply for funding of his research equipment through a range of grants and industrial sponsorship. As an elective class, there are limits to the level of funding available from the school. Mike is on the ball with grant applications and success breeds success with terrific outcomes for students providing the evidence for further funding.
“A vision without resources is just a hallucination” – Dr Joseph M DeSimone, winner of 2008 Lemelson-MIT prize
His students research and design the experiments they need based upon research and Mike encourages them to build it in house and/or figure out precisely which items or consumables they need to purchase including all the safety considerations. They have built three electrospinning chambers for the majority of the work and have had short term loans of a tabletop SEM to characterise their nanofibres thanks to a partnership with Hitachi. Being within the technology department means that adaptations to the ‘standard’ set up are easy to build in the workshop next door or on one of the bank of 3D printers. Every part of the experiments are designed and built by the students including microelectronics and sample holders.
The nanotechnology research has grown from Mike’s experience in the summer program for teachers – it gave him the confidence and specific experimental techniques and experience. In addition, it provided plenty of ideas to explore. It’s difficult with a full schedule of lessons for teachers to have the space to innovate or go outside of their comfort zone (for exampl at primary school where projects have been trialled to help increase confidence in science teaching amongst non-specialists). Mike has had the support of the senior management and therefore has been able to set up his course as an elective (i.e. not a core course, but still contributing to their overall GPA).
The school is now looking at how to expand research, certainly in the science department, but also with the added bonus of an AP research program that would be subject agnostic, much like the EPQ (extended project qualification) in the UK. The AP research is a new curriculum but certainly proves that education decision makers are looking at research techniques as a serious element of high school education. It is easy to see why the program can expand and how research may be taken up beyond the technology department from talking to North Penn’s Principal, Todd Bauer. His view is that his teachers should be able to experiment and have a degree of autonomy to try new things. He wants to be a facilitator rather than a director and is fostering an atmosphere that promotes a community focused environment where everyone feels “safe and connected with school” celebrating successes of both staff and students.
What next for Mike and his research program? He tells me that it has been a dream to facilitate global collaboration amongst young people who are keen to do research. So then, IRIS, an opportunity…A final note: – EPICS. The ‘Engineering Products In Community Service’ club was set up at North Penn based on a program run at Purdue University. The idea is that students research and solve problems that are relevant to their own community – in this case within the school. This club follows a research model and engineering design principle and this year’s cohort are working on a variety of interesting projects including a speaker button that will aid children with special educational needs that find it difficult or are unable to communicate verbally. In this class I saw many of the same faces that are in Mike’s nanotech research class, when asked why they were there they simply said “because it’s fun”. For those that are worried about metrics, that answer says it all about their experience in research classes.
Thanks so much to Mike Boyer and his family, wife Anita and children Andrew and Claudia for inviting us to stay with them during this visit. It has been as much a cultural exchange as a scholarly learning experience and I have enjoyed every nano-second!