Two schools, both alike in researchity(!)

Finding fishies...

Finding fishies at Southampton HS.

I thought about combining blog posts and have resisted thus far as I don’t want to dilute the message and take away too much from each school. However, after my visit today to PRISMS (Princeton International School for Maths and Science) following a trip to Southampton High School earlier in the week there is much to say about how to implement original long-term research programs into a range of different schools.

Necessarily the blog will simplify things, and I apologise in advance for that, however I will try to describe the schools and their challenges before looking at how setting up real research labs in school is being used to enhance the education of their students.

Racks of individual aquariums. Students research optimum envrionmental conditions for raising clownfish.

Racks of individual aquariums. Students research optimum envrionmental conditions for raising clownfish.

Southampton is a public high school in the famous ‘Hamptons’ area of long island. My assumptions about the school from the location were quickly put right by Dr Brian Zahn, principle of the school and Greg Metzger, oceanography & marine science teacher and research enthusiast with the most amazing marine life laboratory. Southampton has a large immigrant population and the permanent residents are not necessarily those in the mansions. There is a permanent population that remains beyond the tourist season and there are some big employers such as Brookhaven National Lab and Stoney Brook University in the vicinity. Southampton is non-selective and there is the full range of abilities and needs amongst the students. Yet, with resources limited and spread well beyond the needs or wish list of the science faculty they are still opening up the timetable to facilitate long-term research projects. For Greg Metzger there is a huge opportunity; “Research is not just for the bright kids who collect all the [advanced placements], they probably won’t have the time to dedicate to it, it’s for everyone else to get the opportunity to experience something beyond their regular classes.”

Oceanography and marine biology research facility at Southampton HS.

Oceanography and marine biology research facility at Southampton HS.

Amy Page, who has taught at the school for 19 years and now heads up the research element was keen to press a now-familiar theme; “The schedule for the students must work, there have been changes that have inadvertently led to a drop in uptake for the research program.” However, the very fact that there are funds available and timetabled time makes a huge statement about the benefits, or perceived benefits of research. Dr Zahn mentioned another recognisable element; “High school graduates are ill-equipped for the modern workplace, they must be able to experience failure and learn problem solving skills.”


PRISMS main school building in leafy Princeton.

PRISMS is a very new school indeed, set up four years ago by a number of teachers from the formidable Thomas Jefferson HS (itself a pioneer in high school research.) It received private funding from a major benefactor and has been able to design the curriculum from the ground up following TJHS brand of research-led learning in sciences and engineering. It is an International school with a large number of students from Asia and the far East but follows a broadly US format with students able to take AP and ‘post-AP’ electives. There is a requirement for a minimum level of English but most students have English as their second or third language. There are very small class sizes (I’m not even sure you can call them classes, they are mini research groups, even in their 9th grade humanities classes!) With the Princeton location this little private school is competing for students amongst some excellent high schools and in an area with high property taxes. It has certainly found its niche with science research at the very core of the school – from the timetable design (yes, that extended day again) to the graduation requirements, which includes the research project that will take at least two academic years. 

Dr David Hausers students working in the biotech lab.

Dr David Hauser’s students working in the biotech lab.

Dr David Hauser, chair of the science department and lab director (you are a lab director if you have a research class) for microbiology and 20 year veteran of the biotech industry is absolutely clear on his role which is to facilitate high quality, original research using state of the art techniques. They are succeeding and the proof appears to be born out in college places. Matthew Pearce, the executive principle, believes in the approach but recognises the importance of evidence to be able to persuade prospective students and parents but also the wider education community that the research-led curriculum works.

The two schools are very different indeed but the structure of the school day and the underlying ethos of both institutions is surprisingly similar: They share a belief in original research combined with the use of equipment (and expertise where available – an example at Southampton, a full-time aquarist to manage the many and varied aquaria in the marine science lab.) Both schools used very similar language when describing the equipment that the students use – it is not simplified ‘science toys’ or ‘educational aids’ but the real thing. Funding is key and in both instances it was large individual private donations that have allowed the school to purchase certain equipment (for example the Hitachi TM3000 SEM at Southampton) in addition to applying for additional funds for the STEM labs.

State of the art equipment in the laboratory tha

State of the art equipment in the laboratory tha

I was very much struck by how the lab design was led by the research and the teaching space fitted into it, or was designed around it, NOT the other way round. This is an important consideration and makes a huge difference to how the students themselves see the equipment and hence the priorities of the schools.

There are some interesting challenges and both schools had rather different views on where their program was lacking. Amy Page recognised that open ended research is difficult and explained that the main problem was staff expertise and ongoing training. There is the risk if certain people leave then equipment may be left unused and the knowledge of how to use it disappears.

Did I mention that Southampton HS has its own planetarium!

Did I mention that Southampton HS has its own planetarium!

David Hauser’s concern is the ability to collaborate. He understands the research world well yet feels that schools generally operate behind closed doors. He would very much like to see a global network of research schools where students can be found talking to their peers from different parts of the world; “…there are few schools in the US and UK that are using authentic science as a teaching platform and most of these are working in isolation; improving discourse between these schools is badly needed.

Here at IRIS we are part of a new network that links schools that have an interest in doing real research. I think we have an opportunity to expand our network and increase the expertise and enthusiasm available to our schools.

The Hitachi TM3000 with x-ray spectroscopy at Southampton HS.

The Hitachi TM3000 with x-ray spectroscopy at Southampton HS.

How amazing to take astronomy classes in your own planatarium...

How amazing to take astronomy classes in your own planatarium…


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