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Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 06/09/2011

Changing how gifted students think

The Loudoun Academy of Science, a six-year-old public magnet school in Sterling inspired in part by the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, already matches that famous school in one vital statistic: Like Jefferson, the Academy of Science each year rejects about 85 percent of applicants.

With 240 students, the academy is one-seventh the size of Jefferson and takes only Loudoun County residents (Jefferson draws from most of Northern Virginia), but it has won glowing reviews from students and has created a research curriculum rare in U.S. secondary education.

“It was completely unlike the standard classroom procedure that I was used to, and I absolutely loved it,” said Carter Huffman, an academy graduate now at MIT. “I have yet to hear of another school that so encourages all of its students to pursue major independent research.”

Elizabeth Asai, another academy graduate, said she and a couple of Yale classmates received university funding this year to design biomedical devices, usually a process daunting to undergraduates. Her friends “were astounded by the ease of presenting our proposal and actually receiving a grant,” she said, but, having attended the Academy of Science, to her “this seemed normal.”

About a dozen magnet programs in the Washington area have developed strong reputations, but few are as selective as the academy and as different in the way they teach. Academy students attend academy classes on the campus of Dominion High School every other day, doing social studies and English at their home schools on the alternate days. They do activities and sports at their home schools, but much of their free time is devoted to their academy research projects.

The ninth-through-12th-grade school has some extraordinary faculty members. My eldest child attended a private high school, Polytechnic, across the street from the California Institute of Technology when we lived in Pasadena in the 1980s. His best math teacher was Richard Sisley, who in 2005 decided to leave California and become a founding teacher at the academy. Like the rest of the faculty, Sisley is full of ideas, such as inviting students to spend the summer exploring algebra topics they didn’t fit in during the regular year.

George Wolfe, a former star teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who has directed the academy since its beginning, says some Loudoun students are so impressed that they have rejected offers from Jefferson in favor of the academy. The school’s Web site says the cornerstone of its approach is “a two-year inquiry-based, integrated physical science course, which includes the study of Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics followed in junior year by a project-based Biology course.”

Ari Dyckovsky, a junior, said he was fascinated his freshman year by a PBS program on scientists working to reach absolute-zero temperatures. That led him to contact National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist Steven Olmschenk and begin a project on long-distance quantum entanglement between storage devices. Dyckovsky sees this as a path to “perfectly secure communications” that “forever eliminate the modern hacker.”

He went to Moscow at the beginning of his junior year and placed first in the 2010 International Space Olympics. Other awards have followed. He isn’t even a senior yet.

Academy students say they are happy with the prizes and admission to selective colleges, but what most pleases them is the way the school transforms their way of learning and thinking. Yasamin Sharifzadeh, who is going to Stanford, said the academy taught her to “explore other possibilities and take that C on my test as a lesson to be learned for the upcoming test.” The math curriculum, she said, “forces students to get a glimpse of a concept before it is taught, and in this way, a greater understanding is reached in the end.”

That instructional style might not work so well at high schools where the average SAT score is not, as it is at the academy, over 2000. But less selective schools might find it interesting to try it and see what happens.

By  |  05:30 AM ET, 06/09/2011

 
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