“Our philosophy is that if the students ask their own questions, they will have a passion” for their research, said George Wolfe, director of the public magnet school in Sterling.
Ann Dunn, 17, of Lovettsville, said she always has been interested in bugs. The junior wore a white jacket with bees on it as she described her discovery this year of a new way to harvest silk from velvet worms by lightly tapping their antennae. Next year, she plans to use a nano spinner to turn the silk into a fiber that could have medical or other commercial applications.
She does not know yet what she will find, but she has already learned a lot about the research process, she said, including how to collaborate with other scientists.
Her project got off to a slow start because she had trouble finding any velvet worms, which are native to rain forests. She contacted some researchers in Germany, who took an interest in her project and put a box of the critters in the mail. Another scientist at the Department of Agriculture helped her get the permits she needed to import them.
Students at the Loudoun school take a two-year physical science course that covers physics, chemistry and earth science. Sophomore year, they study research methods, and by junior year, they embark on a two-year project of their own.
Loudoun’s academy opened in 2005, through a partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which has a research campus in the county. When the school opened, it had 185 applicants for its first freshman class of about 65 students. This year it had 678 applicants for about the same number of spots, giving it an acceptance rate rivaling the Ivy League. Students at the science academy, which is housed at Dominion High, attend every other day and are still enrolled in their home high schools for other courses.
The school, and its inquiry-based approach, has already snagged the attention of some of the top high schools in Asia. A delegation of educators first visited from a school in Singapore in 2007 to see how students were learning to think creatively. Students from that school have since collaborated with the Loudoun students on a series of research projects.
A group of Korean teachers from a gifted high school in Daegu are visiting this week and planning a similar international collaboration.
As the school gains prominence, the Loudoun County School Board is debating whether it wants to keep sending students and tax dollars to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, particularly as the regional magnet school approaches a costly renovation that it expects neighboring counties to help fund.
Peter Bruns, a retired genetics professor at Cornell University and a former vice president for Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was one of the judges for the event Wednesday. He said the quality of the teens’ research varied, but it was clear the students are learning a lot.
Often when you talk to students at science fairs, he said, “you can hear their parents.” Here, he could tell the students actually developed the projects themselves and understood what they were talking about.
Emily Crisp, a 2011 graduate of the school, came back to talk to current students about college life. She is enrolled at Auburn University in Alabama, where she studies the behavioral patterns of mated pairs of clown fish, research that is directly tied to her high school research project.
Thanks to her experience at the Academy of Science, she said, she was better prepared to work in her college laboratory than many Master’s program students she has encountered.
She plans to continue pursuing research in her own graduate work.
“When you do research, you get to find out something that no one else has done before,” she said. “And you get to tell people about it.”