Freedom to fail: Mastering Scientific Experimentation at the Academy of Science

Standard

Imagine yourself as a high school student. Would you trust yourself with a delicate piece of laboratory equipment worth thousands of dollars? Or with coming up with your own independent research project? As scary as these ideas may sound, they are part of the innovative model for high school education that is the basis of the Academy of Science (AOS), a public school in Loudoun County, Virginia.

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled "Shining a Light on Cancer."

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled “Shining a Light on Cancer.”

“As anyone with or working towards a Ph.D. knows, the only way to really master something is by attempting experimentation and failing,” says Mr. George Wolfe, director of the AOS. “We call inquiry the freedom to fail, and that’s what we give our kids. We give them the freedom to fail through the research process, and you’ll be astounded when you talk to these kids and see the level of their work. They are smart, but it’s because of what we do and the way we do it that they are a cut above.”

At the AOS, every student conducts a two-year research project of their own design. All experiments are performed at the AOS under the mentorship of a teacher, and the array of instruments available to AOS students could make many college departments jealous. The AOS is supported as part of a partnership between Loudoun County Public Schools and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and has used this support to acquire laboratory equipment “not typically available to high school students,” says Wolfe.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

Students prepare for their projects by taking inquiry-driven integrated physical science and math courses that are unlike any other high school curriculum. They then begin to develop their research focus and submit their final project proposals, complete with reports demonstrating that their project is feasible, at the end of sophomore year. The students then conduct experiments junior and senior year, and some even collaborate internationally.

ASBMB members can benefit from taking on AOS students as interns, and can help budding scientists when they are inevitably stuck during the research process. Dr. Nanette Chadwick, a professor at Auburn University, helped one AOS student who ended up coming to Auburn to work in her lab. She says that “it has been a wonderful collaboration, and stemmed from her outreach to me, due to her project at AOS. It was her excellent research project at AOS that led her to my lab. I would be happy to have AOS or other high school students intern with me.” Wolfe says this is not uncommon for scientists who help AOS students, saying they “are usually overwhelmed by the quickness with which these kids learn and the techniques they’ve mastered at sixteen-years old, and they require only a minimum of training.” Sounds like a win-win.

To learn more about this program, read our profile on the ASBMB Public Outreach website, or contact Mr. Wolfe [George.Wolfe@lcps.org] to start working with the AOS.

One thought on “Freedom to fail: Mastering Scientific Experimentation at the Academy of Science

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *