The students of the Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Program at Byram Hills High School have been consistently racking up an impressive roster of scientific accolades in recent years. In 2017 alone, they earned coveted top awards from the Westchester-Rockland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, Regeneron Science Talent Search, the American Academy of Neurology’s Neuroscience Research Prizes and the Siemens competition to name a few. All of this recognition, however, is not what’s most extraordinary, according to program director, Stephanie Greenwald. “The best part is the community Dr. Pavlica created. He felt strongly that any student who wanted to be here could. We have honored that legacy and cultivated an environment that empowers students to be their absolute best.”
When Greenwald began her career as a school administrator and science teacher almost 25 years ago, science research wasn’t necessarily a “thing.” What she did know, was that she loved teaching and inspiring children. With 14 years at Byram Hills H.S. under her belt, when the previous director retired last year, she was offered her current position and fell into “the absolute best job I ever had.” There is no question about Greenwald’s passion as she rapidly speaks, “There is nothing more exciting than watching a student who enters this room timidly, find what they love and see that moment when it all clicks. That is my favorite thing in the whole world.”
Developing a Broad Skill Set
Celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, this three-year research program was designed for students who wish to pursue excellence in advanced areas of original research. Students develop skills in bibliographic research, research methodology, and modes of communicating research. Though the workload is described as “very high,” students don’t appear scared off with approximately 80 students enrolled. They participate in group classes with BH faculty and individual meetings with mentors.
The focus is on quantifiable science, yet there is a sense that something magical is at play in this classroom where students’ greatest capabilities make themselves apparent. Greenwald describes the staff’s philosophy, “We pride ourselves on guiding students to find what they are truly passionate about. Almost any topic can be researched. If it can be measured with a numeric value, it’s science.” This is the key to the program’s continued success. Greenwald, explains, “The students who self-select into the program have such a high level of enthusiasm because they are studying what they love. That without a doubt is the major intrinsic motivator.” Study topics have included everything from fashion, football and dogs to vectors, biodiesel fuel and prostate cancer microbiology.
Combating Science Illiteracy with Communication
Once students select their subject matter, the focus is on reading as much material as possible including everything from layman material to professional literature. This research prepares them for the ultimate task of producing a 40-50 page publication. Greenwald describes the process, “They become experts, getting to know ‘the movers and shakers’ in their field. It is imperative that students are able to communicate in everyday terminology.” Communications are integral to the program and an English teacher is on staff to strengthen these skills. According to Greenwald, “There is a vast amount of science illiteracy in this country. Scientists must become better communicators. It is a pet peeve of mine that we have a plethora of incredible experts, yet only a small list of people who understand them. The public must be able to understand that science is not something you can refute. It is simply fact.”
Working with Professional Mentors
A pivotal point in the program is when students identify a professional mentor from a university, medical center or research institute with an expertise in their area of study. “There are so many glorious people who see themselves in the students and wish they had a program like ours when they were younger. We truly wouldn’t exist without their time and generosity.” Mentors may be local, but many span the world and have been as far as England and Israel. They communicate via email, telephone, video conference or in person. Oftentimes, students are invited to spend time working at their laboratories.
The program has very clear benchmarks, during which students receive a high level of critiquing that they learn to accept in order to produce their best work product. “Our grading system is set-up to empower students to be able to take risks and fail. They are not penalized for giving the wrong answer,” says Greenwald. When students hit roadblocks, they are encouraged to ask questions and seek solutions. “I always tell them that all that stands in our way are words and time. If you can’t understand it, research it,” Greenwald guides.
Breeding Young Scientists
At its core, the program aims to support an initiative to create a greater number of PhD and advanced degree candidates in the sciences in this country. Fostering scientific literacy is further supported by engaging in programs at the elementary school level. Greenwald described a common sense approach to breeding young scientists: “Teach them to wonder and problem solve. Encourage them to always ask questions,” she said. “Experiment with trial and error.”
Of the future, Greenwald is optimistic. She disagrees with the stereotypical view of millennials saying, “Every day, I watch students suddenly see above and beyond what they expected their capabilities to be. That’s the moment they learn they are in control of their destiny. It happens here all the time and that’s what makes this place so special. I tell the students, I have faith in my future as long as you take care of it for me.” And, her work is contributing to their ability to do just that.