The 23 high school seniors enrolled at Loudoun County's new Academy of Science had a few guesses yesterday about the identity of the strange, swollen knots growing on the weedy plants that George Wolfe had gathered over the weekend in Maryland.
Budding scientists, passionate enough about the topic to leave their friends every other day and travel to the untested magnet program in Sterling, the students suggested seeds or a food source at first, Wolfe, the academy's first director, said last night after the first day of school.
Only with some research will Wolfe's students discover the strange truth: Maggots are nested inside because the plant was chemically tricked into sprouting a green home for the bugs by a growth hormone secreted by flies that lay their eggs inside its stalks.
The students will spend the next few weeks slicing and dicing the altered goldenrod plants, peering at the creatures inside the growths, which also can house wasps and beetles that munch away at the growing maggots. They'll do statistical analyses to study the sizes of different growths and spend some time talking biochemistry. Wolfe said that is the most important thing: the research. Even if his students read the answer in the newspaper, they will have learned the scientific method, he said.
The project is the kind of interdisciplinary and intensely hands-on research experiment that Loudoun administrators hope will be the hallmark of their new science program, inaugurated yesterday as more than 47,400 students went back to school in the growing county.
The Loudoun Academy of Science is being nurtured by a $1 million yearly donation from the giant Chevy Chase-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is building a $500 million research campus in the county. The money will equip the academy's labs with college-level gear, and the Hughes Institute's nationally renowned scientists someday will serve as mentors and research guides for the students.
The program is projected to enroll 250 students in grades 9 through 12. This year it starts with the seniors and 62 freshmen, who will attend small classes with four to 16 students in an empty wing of Sterling's Dominion High School every other day. They will spend the rest of the week at their neighborhood high schools.
Wolfe, who looks a bit the part of a mad scientist, with a tuft of white hair floating above his balding head, was persuaded by a Hughes official to end his 20-year career as a science teacher in Rochester, N.Y., and move to Loudoun to design and head the program. He left his own PBS educational television show that had aired across New York.
In Loudoun, he said, he is looking for the chance to help the Hughes Institute learn how to improve methods of teaching science. Hughes officials have said they will observe the academy's techniques, hoping to export its successes nationwide.
One approach Hughes officials will be watching is the class for seniors devoted entirely to research techniques. Another is a two-year integrated physical science course required for freshmen. At most U.S. high schools, Wolfe said, students typically take earth science first, followed by biology and chemistry. Many never even reach physics.
"We've been doing it backwards," he said. "They learn about rocks, but they don't know anything about chemistry. They learn about earthquakes, but they don't know anything about waves." The academy will turn the traditional method on its head, teaching physics, chemistry and earth science woven into one long course. By the end of sophomore year, students will have learned the fundamentals of each topic and how they interrelate.
"It's our hope that this will catch on and become the way science is taught, because it makes sense," Wolfe said.
The first day of classes yesterday brought some eyebrow-raising moments. For Evan Robbins, 18, one came when his AP chemistry teacher, Linda Gulden, told him she had majored in chemical engineering at Northwestern University and spent nine years as a working scientist before becoming a teacher.
"Cool," he responded.
For Vojtech Gall and Tony Bauer, both 17, one happened when physics teacher James Bond mentioned offhand that he has met several Nobel Prize winners and hopes they will come by and speak to the 10-student class. Sitting in adjacent desks, the two leaned over, exchanging impressed glances.
The students applied to join the academy in the spring, before its curriculum was written or its teachers hired. "It was a real gamble," said Christina Dang, 17, who will juggle academy classes with life at Park View High School, where she's a student council officer. "But we figured it'll look good on our college applications."
County students also can apply to regional powerhouse Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. Academy Guidance Director Jane Fonash acknowledged that some freshmen who were accepted to both schools chose Thomas Jefferson, despite the commute. But, she said, with time and experience, the academy could become the science program of choice for Loudoun students.
"It's a difficult choice whether to go to a school that's been around with a great reputation for 20 years or a brand-new program," she said. "But we'll get there."