Palo Alto school district launching advanced research program | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto school district launching advanced research program

Students: Apply for a spot by Sept. 25

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Sophomores, juniors and seniors at Palo Alto's two high schools have until Friday to apply for a spot in the district's new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which will pair participating students with mentors for a year-long, in-depth research project.

What sets the new program apart from Palo Alto High School's longtime Science Research Projects (SRP) course is that it reaches beyond STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics to include independent research in the social sciences, arts, humanities and as well as "hybrid topics" that overlap disciplines, a description of the program reads.

The application asks students to indicate their interest in a range of topics, from biology, economics, business and engineering to psychology, fine arts, education, justice, law and sports.

Superintendent Max McGee first brought his proposal to expand Paly's science-research program to the school board in April, lauding student-led authentic research as a proven way to foster a deeper love of learning, knowledge and engagement outside of typical classroom settings. The board later approved the program as part of a broad set of 2015-16 resource allocations.

The program will pair students with off-campus mentors working in their field of interest. Professors from Stanford University as well as Google and Palo Alto Medical Foundation employees have already expressed in being mentors, according to Jeong Choe, the new coordinator of the AAR program.

Over the course of the school year, the students will develop a research proposal, maintain a research journal, collect and analyze data, document their investigation process, prepare and present an oral defense and scientific poster display to a panel of judges and audience of their peers, write a professional-level paper that "contributes new knowledge to the field of study" and learn about the social and ethical implications of their research, the description reads. The required time commitment is 60 hours per semester.

The off-campus research will also be supplemented with classroom curriculum currently being developed by Choe and a team of teachers. The curriculum design is based on three central elements: personalized learning, integrating and applying knowledge and process and communicating research findings.

Choe, who most recently taught biochemistry at McGee's former employer, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), comes with a deep background in both research and education. She was involved with IMSA's longtime Student Inquiry and Research Program, a one-credit, graded course that offers sophomores and above a year-long opportunity to research a specific question or topic that they have chosen to investigate.

At IMSA, an entire school day each week is set aside for these self-directed projects. Choe said the Palo Alto program will draw from the IMSA model. When the board discussed the program in April, President Melissa Baten Caswell said that when she and others did their validation visit to hire McGee, the research program "was a highlight that almost every person we talked to brought up."

Before joining the IMSA faculty, Choe also worked with the Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education (CASPiE), a multi-institutional collaboration designed to increase authentic research in undergraduate chemistry classrooms, as well as a project to bring more research projects to undergraduates at Chicago community colleges.

She said in all of these programs, she witnessed the positive effect of authentic, real-world research on students. Students were more engaged, more focused and in some cases yielded higher test scores, she said.

"When you put (a subject) in a natural context, it really can help students to focus to be part of the scientific process rather than, 'Here is the scientific process; go learn this way,'" Choe said. "I think it just sets in better."

"We know students learn best when they immerse themselves in a topic that has interest and meaning for them," McGee echoed in an April staff report. "These projects ignite, illuminate, and inspire student learning and are likely to have an impact long after the project is completed."

McGee also noted at the time that SRP and other project-based programs exist 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.

In April, the school board expressed mostly excitement at the prospect of a program of this size, scope and quality. Some did, however, warn McGee to think about how to scale it up carefully after this first pilot year.

Choe said about 30 students will be accepted for the 2015-16 pilot year. More than 100 applications had been submitted as of last week. Choe and three teachers will review the applications after the Sept. 25 deadline.

To apply, go to

Community members who are interested in serving as mentors are encouraged to contact McGee at

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


1 person likes this
Posted by Therish Getrisher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2015 at 6:34 pm

I would also encourage those interesting in mentorship to consider signing up to be a mentor for the county science fair. There are never enough mentors:
Web Link

I sure wish this was coming on the heels of more fundamental reforms we desperately need in the district. (Seems like more picking winners and losers based on the arbitrary gauntlet our schools have become.)

JLS Connections is only a project-based program in 6th grade. There is an afterschool year-long project in 8th. Otherwise, it is not a project-based program. By 7th grade, kids are only taking 2 classes within Connections, and they aren't even project-based. The rest are traditional classes.

2 people like this
Posted by Therish Getrisher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2015 at 6:48 pm

Is this an afterschool program added to what kids are already taking, or are kids going to get to take it instead of some classes? How are they going to arrange for the kids in the class to have no classes once a week if it's the latter? The description doesn't say.

10 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 21, 2015 at 7:02 pm

"More than 100 applications had been submitted as of last week. Choe and three teachers will review the applications after the Sept. 25 deadline. "

The spots are only 30.
So only smart kids get them after all?

24 people like this
Posted by Careful what you pray for
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2015 at 8:37 pm

There will be well in excess of 300 applications for 30 spots. Only 1/10 of applications will be selected and the rest of the parents will riot, since the selection criteria are totally opaque, this is PUBLIC SCHOOL and should not have anything like this with a "merit" based application and entirely opaque criteria. It should be LOTTERY ONLY. It is absurd that it is not lottery-based and the school board should get this on the agenda pronto and force the Super to make it lottery based. This is SO UNFAIR it is CRAZY.

Students who receive the opportunity will obviously be highly highly advantaged in college applications over those who are otherwise similar but did not get a spot. This is tracking on steroids. It is not like an audition for a music ensemble or a juried art exhibition. This is totally ridiculous. Mark my words, all you parents who wanted this crazy thing are going to now be sad because your little snowflake is not going to Stanford or Harvard if he doesn't get in. This must be lottery or it should be stopped.

Also, what does advanced research in music or fine arts mean? That's incoherent. All of the documentation is about science yet there are about 20 fields, including some that are performance based and in which research makes literally no sense. You don't do "research" in fine arts. Fine arts are not research fields. Art history, yes. Fine arts no. This makes PAUSD look like it doesn't even know what research is. Students are going to write a "publishable paper" in fine arts? Wha?

16 people like this
Posted by Careful what you pray for
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2015 at 8:40 pm

By the way, I don't have a kid in high school and so I don't care whether or not your snowflake gets to go to Harvard. But I think this is going to create an incredibly even more unhealthy culture of competition that we do not need. I am shocked that Ken Dauber let this happen without insisting on a lottery selection mechanism. He should know better. The story says that the board mostly supported this. Didn't anyone say it would increase competition and stress? They are all such useless cheerleaders. I expected more from Dauber.

14 people like this
Posted by Gunn Junior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:22 pm

@Careful what you pray for: Where in the article does it explicitly state that students will be selected based on talent/"smartness"? I am a part of Gunn's newspaper staff and only a few days ago we published an article on AAR-- where we were told that the selection process would most likely be based on a lottery. I hope you stop jumping to conclusions and ridiculing a program you know little about.

Furthermore, where did you get the number 300 from? The article states that as of last week, only 100 applications have been submitted. Do you think 200 more will be submitted in the next 4 days? What's more, what can McGee do about having too many applications? It's not his fault they don't have the administrative means to expand the program-- especially considering it's the PILOT year. Personally, I am very excited about AAR and have applied myself, hoping for the chance to conduct some actual humanities research.

One more point: it's narrow-minded to think that the fine arts cannot be researched. Music theory and art theory are both very valid fields of research, and even concepts like engineering and psychology can be researched in/applied to both visual AND performing arts. I laud AAR's wish to be inclusive, allowing students to freely pursue something that interests THEM as an individual.

11 people like this
Posted by Careful what you pray for
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:32 pm

Look at the application. If it was a lottery it would say: Name_____________________________Email:__________________.
Instead, it asks substantive essay questions. The criteria are not specified, but it asks if you already have a "mentor" in the community which suggests that if you do, you have a better chance of selection.

Who said that selection would be based on a lottery? If that is true, that is as it should be. You seem to agree. Therefore we agree. Or perhaps you are fine with the idea that your classmate might get a slot while you do not based on his or her connections through parents to a laboratory researcher at Stanford.

When college apps are done, those who have a 30 page publishable paper are going to be very very advantaged over those who were not selected particularly if selection itself comes to be seen as merit based. The selection has to be by lottery as it is the only fair way to choose participants.

Anyway as I said, I don't have a grade-grubbing high schooler, just an abstract fondness for fundamental fairness and distributive justice in public education.

6 people like this
Posted by Careful what you pray for
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:39 pm

Shouldn't it say "Art Theory" or "Music Theory" rather than Fine Art, which is studio or performance based? Criticism is not art. And, in any event what do you think the odds are that a high school student can write any kind of publishable paper in the humanities or in Art theory or criticism? That is a ridiculous idea. Participating in a simple (or even a hard) lab experiment is totally different. That is about rigor and method. The humanities are interpretive disciplines. No high schooler really has the ability to make a contribution to knowledge because they just don't yet know enough basic information to understand and interpret large literatures which is necessary for this kind of work. Certainly it cannot be done in one academic year, 30 hours per term.

But it will be a giant resume prize and it will have the effect of rewarding some and excluding others.

8 people like this
Posted by Ronald Trump
a resident of another community
on Sep 21, 2015 at 11:53 pm

Listen, people don't spend millions of dollars on mediocre houses to move to Palo Alto for "innovation". The problem with Palo Alto right now is that we're training so many leaders that there won't be any followers for these leaders. Not everyone gets to be CEO; we need a whole lot more apprentices. What the clowns on Churchill Ave need to establish is a program for ALL students to take the exact same curriculum that we had in the 50s, the last time when Palo Alto was truly great. This is the only way we can have a truly fair and merciless cage match so we can determine who the real winners are and stop letting the losers hide behind following their "passions". We need to know who our real top 1% are so that the Ivy League can group them with the top 20% from the best private schools. We then need to prepare the other 99% for jobs more suited for their abilities, like dealing with this Canada goose crisis that nobody's talking about.

Ronald Trump
"Making Palo Alto even greater so we can stop being insecure if it's great enough"

11 people like this
Posted by Yikes
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2015 at 8:08 am

Too many chiefs and not enough Indians....

Too many cooks spoil the broth.....

4 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 22, 2015 at 11:29 am

Since when has PAUSD ever had an honest lottery though? If you count the sibling rule, it never has, certainly. But even excluding that, really, has there ever been one where the fix isn't in?

1 person likes this
Posted by inquiring minds
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2015 at 12:18 pm


How are the lotteries rigged?

8 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 22, 2015 at 1:42 pm

Yes, having a publishable research paper is an advantage. However, if your kid doesn't get in, what is there to prevent that kid (and parents) to look for a mentor situation on their own? I suspect, for that matter, if you went in with a strong project proposal and a mentor, you could probably be added to the program.

From what I can see, this program formalizes something that's already been happening. If anything, it makes this sort of thing more widely available--instead of something that requires being "in the know".

Personally, I hope it's *not* a pure lottery situation. Quality should matter. Plenty of things are *fair* without being lottery-based. It's fair that the better players end up on the varsity football team. It's fair that good students get better grades.

There's nothing wrong in working for an opportunity. So, until it's shown that the program is unfair (i.e. all the spots go to the kids of big donors and faculty brats), I'm not going to assume that it is.

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