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 pausd.org.
Community members who are interested in serving as mentors are encouraged to contact McGee at firstname.lastname@example.org.