Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee is hoping to expand a longtime student-research program at Palo Alto High School in both scope and size, bringing advanced research to students at both high schools and in subjects beyond science.
McGee will discuss his vision for an Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program at Tuesday's board meeting. In a staff report, he lauds student-led authentic research as a proven way to foster a deeper love of learning, knowledge and engagement outside of typical classroom settings.
The foundation for the new program is Paly's Science Research Project (SRP), which for 20 years has provided a year-long, 10-unit elective that pairs highly motivated students interested in science with mentors from local bodies like NASA, Stanford University and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). McGee notes that SRP and other project-based programs are already in place throughout the district such as the Social Justice Pathway at Paly, Connections at Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Middle School and extracurricular activities like robotics, debate and model United Nations but have limited capacity.
McGee is recommending that the district expand Paly's scientifically focused research program to Gunn High School in the 2016-17 school year, with a small pilot program to run in the 2015-16 year. He is also pushing for the program to go beyond science to include research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
He also wrote that the program should be expanded to include a broader swath of students "not just the top ones" at both Paly and Gunn.
"We know students learn best when they immerse themselves in a topic that has interest and meaning for them," McGee wrote in the staff report. "These projects ignite, illuminate, and inspire student learning and are likely to have an impact long after the project is completed."
A new leg of the program is also already underway: Over spring break, McGee took a small group of Paly and Gunn students to Singapore to conduct original scientific research in labs with other students at the National Junior College. They will continue their research throughout the year, prepare formal papers and ideally, submit their work for publication.
McGee comes to Palo Alto from a high school with a strong emphasis on independent student research, and in his report suggests that the district look to his former school in Illinois (among others) as a potential model moving forward. Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) has run a Student Inquiry and Research Program for 27 years that offers students a year-long opportunity to research a specific question or topic that they have chosen to investigate. An entire school day at IMSA is set aside for these self-directed projects each week.
The board could approve Tuesday night $142,000 in funding to pay for a new student-research coordinator who would oversee the expanded research program. This full-time employee would help design, develop, deliver and evaluate electives for high school students to conduct original research; collaborate with other students and on- or off-campus professionals; oversee the pilot program next year and create curricular standards for the new program. The board will vote on the position as part of a broad set of resource allocations for the 2015-16 year, which mostly relate to staffing.
In other business Tuesday, the board will consider two new courses for Paly in early childhood development; take action on a new schematic design for the Paly library project and consider approving one-year extensions of the district's leases for Garland Elementary School site and a 525 San Antonio Road property.
McGee will also provide an update on an enrollment management advisory committee, a 15-member group who met for the first time this week. The group has been charged with issuing recommendations for short- and long-term plans to accommodate Palo Alto Unified's continually increasing student population, which could include but are not limited to opening a 13th elementary school, a fourth middle school or something else entirely, McGee has said. The members of the committee were announced Friday and include: district parents and community members Scott Burton, Todd Collins, Natasha Kachenko, Joe Lee, Grace Mah, Mark McBride, Erin Mershon, Gretchen Olbrich, Wendy Ho, Diana Reklis, and Sheena Chin; the district's Bond Programs Manager Bob Golton, Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak, Attendance Accounting Supervisor Margie Mitchell and Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Charles Young. The superintendent and principals will also participate regularly.
The Tuesday, April 21, board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, at 25 Churchill Ave. There will be a tenure celebration from 4:45 to 5:55 p.m. before the board goes into closed session at 6 p.m.
View the full board agenda here.