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Outside in // inside out

Giant model nanotube - Students at Palo Alto pride themselves in this (possibly record breaking) use of teaching supplies!

Giant model nanotube – Students at Palo Alto pride themselves in this (possibly record breaking) use of teaching supplies!

For the last couple of high schools I visited I thought it worth bringing together into a post to look at the influence of external providers to transform the experience of the students.  I think it would be fair to say that the schools are very different; on the one hand an agricultural area in Monteray bay, Aptos high school, with a higher proportion of free school meals and certainly a lower school district spend on science (approx. $100 per year per student for standard science classes) and Palo Alto HS, literally across the road from Stanford University and in the very heart of Silicon Valley – definitely a rich neighbourhood and with the benefit of a school district attracting funding from high property taxes but also the added injection of funding from a very active parents group.

Surely unfair to compare – well yes, but that’s not really the point. In both schools there is input from external agencies that really enhance the science provision, specifically enabling use of science research equipment and teaching research skills.

Hammerhead from a distance! The fantastic open ocean tank at Monteray bay aquarium

Hammerhead from a distance! The fantastic open ocean tank at Monteray bay aquarium

Aptos high school teacher Greg McBride has been running a research class in association with Monteray bay aquarium for the last few years. Monteray Bay aquarium is a private research endeavour for marine science with the public face of a fantastic aquarium open to the public. The two bodies (research arm and public aquarium) are separate entities and had significant funding from the Packard foundation. Part of this is a dedication to STEM education at school including the WATCH project which involves schools in the Watsonville district and provides an elective science research class, two week summer training camp and opportunity to work with the Monteray bay aquarium on research projects. Students apply to take the class which is limited in numbers since significant funds come from the foundation and the school district together, aiming for 35 fully funded places.

This transforms the opportunity for those students on the course as the nominal funding for the year comes in at around $7000 per student. This might sound like a large amount of money, you’d be right…but remember two things, this includes everything they need – transport to the research sites, food, the two week camp plus money for equipment and consumables for the entire year. This is charitable money to help out schools outside in relatively poorer areas and some of the students that gain from the course can’t even swim, despite the school being almost next to the Pacific coast (an example of the poor student that is not participating in the normal life of teenagers in the area because as a result of their family circumstances). Aptos sits between a rock and a hard place, too few free school meal students to gain extra state funding but enough that require extra support which therefore takes resources from other areas of the school.

Greg McBride with some of the conference posters from previous years research class.

Greg McBride with some of the conference posters from previous years research class.

Tracking outcomes is important (as ever) but the program is too young to know whether there is a statistically viable affect on outcomes. However, the usual raft of anecdotes make for tear jerking stories, including the student who literally did not speak in the presence of others who took part in the course (notably the summer training camp) and is apparently now at grad school studying law!

The students have a very similar class experience to all the other research classes that I have discussed in previous blogs. They have a mentor, usually a postgrad student from a local marine biology or oceanography department and they develop a question based on a literature survey of their chosen area of interest. The key thing is that they are able to go to the various wetland habitats which are under scientific interest or owned by universities etc. This is often brand new research. Ultimately the groups will present their findings at a gala event at the aquarium where they will give a talk and defend a poster to the general public and invited scientific community. For many of them their personal development is huge. Talking to some of the students in the class I was struck by the level of self-motivation and determination they had to make a success of the class. They realised the value and the opportunity and were keen to make a success of it.

At Palo Alto the students are being given a different opportunity but no less enhancing of their resumes. Foothill college is a community college on the outskirts of Los Altos, Ca, which has a beautiful campus and terrific STEM college courses. Dr Robert Cormia is a college professor who just happens to be running a college nanotechnology course in a high school. Robert’s background is in materials characterisation (in industry) and is almost preacher-like about the importance of characterisation as a pillar of nanotechnology/nanoscience research. He is awash with anecdotes about his time in industry and how businesses or government labs solved multi-million dollar problems when they [eventually] went to the microscopist to try to understand why their projects were going wrong.

Off topic – not at all. Dr Cormia runs a nanoscience course at Palo Alto. This is an elective course, not a core course, and is eligible for college credit. There are a lot of mundane benefits for the students – like the college credit, the variety of science they experience and the lab techniques that they can add to their resume. However, what I witnessed during my visit was the exposure to absolutely state of the art ideas and what Robert himself calls the ‘grand challenges’ – all of which are in some way related to energy and the environment, either through business efficiency and efficacy of products or simply technology that might save the world (biosynthesis, solar photovoltaics, battery technology etc. etc.)

Cheap and quick to produce, the infinityPV solar cell featured in the nanoscience class at Palo Alto.

Cheap and quick to produce, the infinityPV solar cell featured in the nanoscience class at Palo Alto.

During my visit they were looking at sustainable, cheap, easy to produce brand new photovoltaic cells that could be rolled out quickly in areas of need such as refugee camps. The students were measuring efficiency which brought together maths and physics as well as a discussion about the polymer chemistry of the cells themselves. As part of the course the students gain access to Foothill college labs where there is a scanning electron microscope (Hitachi TM3000) and table top Atomic Force Microscope (Pacific Nanotechnology). Through connections at NASA and other academic institutions Dr Cormia is able to access further characterisation techniques when needed so he is ultimately flexible when a student wishes to run their own research project. I was incredibly impressed with the tech labs at Foothill including the 3D printing and mechanical testing.

Electron microscope next to Atomic Force Microscope, complementary kit and a terrific display screen to help communicate the science to small groups in the lab.

Electron microscope next to Atomic Force Microscope, complementary kit and a terrific display screen to help communicate the science to small groups in the lab.

Again, the funding and the impetus comes from the external provider. In this case Foothill is keen to be part of the community and attract its own students from the local area. Palo Alto is a feeder school for the college so the partnership makes sense. The college system is very different in the US with a requirement for general education courses so often community college is a good option to reduce the overall cost of college for the first couple of years before majoring at a different institution. While the drive for quality, rigour (after all it is a college course!) and content comes from Foothill, the students at Palo Alto are discerning in their choice of classes, after all, they have to have a quality transcript and demonstrate their aptitude for college. This symbiotic relationship between the school and college seems a very sensible option although the question remains whether it could exist outside a region like Silicon Valley where expertise and innovation funding (even for education projects) appears commonplace.

Me getting to play with more great equipment! In this case the AFM...

Me getting to play with more great equipment! In this case the AFM…

One final thought though…all the schools that I’ve visited, from the richest in Los Altos/Washington DC to the low income inner city Bronx, they all seem to have superb sports facilities including the ‘branded’ football field – often high quality artificial multi-use surface. Yet the spending per student or the staff salaries are wildly different. It wouldn’t be fair not to throw out the question of priorities, especially in areas that are struggling to fund even the most basic chemistry lab equipment… I understand the importance of school sport in the US, and the pride and sense of identity it brings, but there has to be more to it – comments & clarifications welcome!

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