A couple days after my visit to Groton, I found myself weaving through the crazy NYC commute on my way to the Bronx High School of Science.
Bronx Science is a science and math magnet school that is part of the New York City public school system. Eighth graders in NYC can take a specialized entrance exam for one of the city’s eight elite magnet schools. Gaining admission to Bronx Science is tough – only 5% of the students taking the test earn a spot. Despite taking only a sliver of the total applicant pool, Bronx Science is crowded. At over 3000 students, it is almost ten times the size of Groton, and is housed in a single building in the north Bronx.
I was met at the entrance by a beautiful Venetian glass mosaic, a peaceful 9/11 Memorial Garden, and two armed police officers staffing the main security substation who checked my ID and verified that I was expected.
The mosaic shows famous figures from science, from Archimedes to Galileo to Marie Curie. Above them loom what looked to me like the gods of physics, chemistry, and biology.
The quotation below it reads, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”
The 9/11 Garden remembers Bronx Science graduates who died in the September 11th attacks.
Also in the lobby area I saw a poster celebrating a Bronx Science grad who recently won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Eight alumni from this school have won a Nobel Prize in science (the other seven in Physics). Not bad when your high school has more Nobel’s than Australia….
After I was finally cleared to go upstairs, I was escorted to the Chemistry Department. Yes, Chemistry has its very own department here (along with its own assistant principal) – and with 13 full-time chemistry teachers, a full-fledged Chemistry Department does not seem excessive. It was here in one of the chemistry offices that I met Lauren, a young teaching dynamo with whom I spent the rest of the day trying to keep up.
Despite being obviously very busy, Lauren took a generous amount of time to tell me about the school and the science program. Chemistry is a required course at Bronx Science (along with Biology and Physics). And every chemistry student is required to pass the New York State Regents Exam at the end of the course, a standardized test measuring his or her understanding of topics covered in the class. Students who don’t pass the test don’t pass the class and must repeat it.
Of course Regents Chemistry (or Honors Regents Chemistry) is just the beginning for most students at Bronx Science. They typically take the introductory course as 9th or 10th graders. In their later years, students can move on to Advanced Placement (AP) Chem and then optionally Organic Chemistry and/or Analytical Chemistry. These upper level classes cover much of the material found in a normal college freshman and college sophomore chemistry program. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a number of these classes to see what they are like. The classes I watched tended to be fairly traditional in style, with teachers lecturing from the blackboard and students sitting in rows. But there was quite a bit of back-and-forth Q&A, and the students were engaged in every class. There was also time for students to consult with each other in pairs and discuss the concept, a nice way to add student interactivity in classes that usually had student enrollments in the mid-30s. The classes were well organized, quickly paced, and finely structured, with no wasted time.
I was impressed with how robust the laboratory program was, despite the space and budget limitations that were in place. Many chemistry classes at Bronx Science do lab once a week or more, thanks in part to the generous contact time allocated to science classes. While a standard period is only 40 minutes, most Chemistry classes meet between 7 and 10 times a week! So the AP Chem class, for example, meets every day Monday through Friday for 80 minutes. And while the lab spaces are crowded, most students seem to work very well in this environment.
Larger classes mean that students work with less individual oversight from the teacher. While this could be viewed as a negative, in fact it seems to have taught these students to be independent and self-reliant. They worked with confidence and efficiency, and when they got stuck they first tried to get themselves unstuck rather than run to the teacher at the first sign of trouble. Occasionally, they would seek help from a classmate when they were uncertain or confused about something. Rather than merely provide the answer, most of their peers gave the same kind of response that their teacher might:
“What do YOU think you should do about it?”
“Well, think about it – will your endpoint be acidic or basic?”
“Read your handout, dumb-butt.”
Well, almost the same kind of response.
The bell eventually rang, and I eased my way out into the crushing mass of teens all struggling to squeeze their way past the throngs to their next class. I snapped a few photos along the way which give clues to some of the extensive independent research that students here engage in:
Construction of Crystalline Metal Organic Frameworks as a Potential Hydrogen Fuel Cell Storage Matrix? As a high schooler? Wow.
Yes, they have a student-written and edited Physical Sciences Journal. Double wow.
I found Analytical Chemistry – like all rooms and all offices, the lab was locked until Lauren arrived with the key. Watching her Analytical Chemistry lab was a treat. Seventeen teams of two students crammed into the advanced chem laboratory, and were immediately at work.
Those little glass enclosures are how you can provide hood space (to vent toxic or smelly gases) for 34 kids simultaneously. Lauren’s students are engaged in a week-long project to see which commercial antacid neutralizes the most stomach acid for the least amount of money.
These students were all upperclassmen, and took this lab very seriously. They aimed for extreme precision and accuracy, using primary standards and volumetric equipment to carefully calibrate their acid and base titrants. Lauren has built an impressive curriculum for this class from scratch, based partly on her own lab experience as an undergrad. I am planning on stealing several of her awesome-sounding labs (she generously offered to send me handouts of anything). My favorites included: Concentration of Dye in Gatorade, Determination of Calcium by Titration with a Chelating Ligand, Amount of Phosphoric Acid in Cola, and Investigation of Buffers in Lemonade. I love the demanding, sophisticated nature of these labs coupled with their investigation of common, everyday items like antacids, Gatorade, calcium supplements, lemonade, and Coke.
When their investigation is complete, each student will write an elaborate and professional lab report. Lauren pulled one out for me to look at from last week’s lab. It was nearly 10 pages, and from scanning through it I believe it would have earned a favorable grade from my college lab TA at Yale.
I handed the report back to Lauren and asked how she handled the workload. With classes of 30-40 students, courses that meet 7-10 times a week, lab reports that approach the length of feature articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and a daily NYC commute from hell, this seemed a lot to put on the shoulders of someone still her 20s. Oh, and I forgot to mention that she is one of the lead teachers for the intro chem classes, and is helping to mentor the seven new chemistry teachers (most of whom are new to teaching). She just smiled. “It can be hard sometimes.” This is obviously someone who loves her job.
I should mention at this point that despite some very different challenges, the teachers at Groton are no less busy or less dedicated. While they enjoy small classes, a small department (i.e. two total teachers) means that the Groton chemistry teachers often each teach three different courses: intro, AP, and a STEM course that meets for double periods. And when the Bronx Science teachers are shoveling their lab reports into their briefcases for the drive or ride home, Groton teachers are off to sports practice (coaching is part of the expectation there). Then they might supervise a club, attend an evening school event, and then spend the next several hours on dorm duty. They live on campus, eat every meal with the students, and are available literally 24-7.
So my hat is off to all of the very talented and dedicated teachers I met last week. I again came away from my visits impressed and inspired.