California dreamin’

Los Altos HS Mountain View, Ca

I was met last week by Greg Stoehr, department chair and ‘surf before school’ teacher of environmental science and biology at Los Altos HS. It was clear from the outset that schools I have been lucky enough to visit on this excursion really do have lots in common, especially the incredible enthusiasm and determination of the teachers to give their students the very best opportunities. The flow of the conversation was familiar and I chuckled [at the similar language] when our initial discussion moved on to the reasons for pursuing research themes in lessons and facilitating a ‘real’ research class at the school.

I’m also going to throw in that Greg took me surfing off Cowells beach, Santa Cruz, one night after school and this is going to be the basis of an [admittedly] awful metaphor which I will occasionally crowbar in…

The lighthouse and surfer's museum just around the coast from Cowell's beach.

The lighthouse and surfer’s museum just around the coast from Cowell’s beach. Teachers at Los Altos  often commute from further afield (e.g. Santa Cruz) due to the cost of living in Silicon Valley.

It seems to me to surf successfully there needs to be a few things in place; you have to be physically fit, there have to be the right weather conditions, you have to have the right equipment – doesn’t have to be brand new, top of the line BUT it has to be looked after and in working order…finally, and I say this very much as a beginner…to surf successfully you need to have a bit of experience/expertise to guide you. To push this metaphor to its limit, Greg was my guide that evening and all of the above was in place – I was totally overjoyed at standing up on the board and surfing to the beach several times. Watching Greg effortlessly catch wave after wave was all the inspiration I needed.

Ok, so how does that represent what I’ve seen at Los Altos? I don’t want to spend this post repeating what I’ve said before – if you read between the lines of the above paragraph you will get a hint of past posts. However, there’s a few highlights worth mentioning which are food for thought.

The project boards for the research class. Each student records their latest ideas and thoughts on their 'space' - it generates discussion, not just amonst the students but teachers (and visitors!) who happen to walk past.

The project boards for the research class. Each student records their latest ideas and thoughts on their ‘space’ – it generates discussion, not just amonst the students but teachers (and visitors!) who happen to walk past.

As with a few of the schools I’ve visited the science department at Los Altos has managed to pursue the district to facilitate a science research class. It has an average of 50 minutes per day and is a year-long course made up mostly of Juniors and Seniors (year 12 & 13). Again, plenty of similarities – the bulk of the first few weeks is taken up with literature review and identifying possible mentors from academia and industry. Now, the advantage of being in Mountain View, Ca becomes obvious with the wealth of science and technology universities and businesses in the vicinity…however, it was very interesting to see how far they had cast their net (there’s those seaside phrases again) including a professor from the University of Derby, UK. They have started to build up a database of past mentors and have maintained the relationship, often inviting them to give talks during the school district science week. Research class teacher Darren Dressen is clear that continuity helps, i.e. previous students being able to help current students with their projects, or taking over where others left off. Mr Dressen tries to facilitate their equipment requests but the research class is not directly funded by the school so the department has to be imaginative about getting hold of the research equipment they need. The projects are incredibly varied and don’t necessarily follow the expertise within the department – the experience of the science teachers (many of them previously from industry or business) can help with the broad skills needed for research but the students themselves seem to be incredibly self-motivated. They have no problem contacting and chasing up their mentors when they need assistance and have to produce detailed, fully costed specifications of what equipment they are after! Maybe this comes from a confidence gained in their other science classes…

A typical Los Altos science lab. Lab first, classroom space second.

A typical Los Altos science lab. Lab first, classroom space second.

What amazed me was the level to which research methods and equipment that you’d find in academia or industry was embedded within regular classes. The scanning electron microscope seems to be used within a number of different subjects for a whole variety of laboratory experiments (during my visit a comparative study of sea plankton from locations along the coast were being imaged). This is a headline grabbing machine (the Hitachi TM3000, similar to models other schools are using) although the department is still learning and it was nice to be able to share some of my expertise regarding sample preparation and image analysis when discussing some of the experiments and lessons that are in the ‘pipeline’. In addition there was a whole class set of biotechnology equipment that is rather unusual – although I am beginning to see biotech work its way into classrooms more often.

Biotech lab. Preparing the gels for eletrophoresis.

Biotech lab. Preparing the gels for eletrophoresis.

I’ve never seen several sets of gel electrophoresis being set up in a laboratory skills class. Moreover, these techniques were being taught in honours biology as well (possibly an equivalent of year 10 or 11 biology GCSE classes.) DNA splicing with the end result being bacteria colonies expressing the gene for red fluorescence from sea anemone within a regular class set up was very special. What was interesting was that the students realised it too. One of them mentioned to me that he had a good grasp of different areas of science and engineering purely because he lives among all the high tech companies and it is hard to escape their influence.

Robotics lab. This class is exculsively funded by students looking for grants and contacting local [silicon valley] businesses. They have ongoing relationships with a number of providers, for example powder coating and advanced machine shops.

Robotics lab. This class is exclusively funded by students who apply for grants (via their teacher) and contact with local [silicon valley] businesses. They have ongoing relationships with a number of providers, for example powder coating and advanced machine shops. They are clear that the business element and team members responsible are as important as the coding or CAD.

In fact, it should seem obvious where a very fortunate element of why Los Altos can do all this comes from. Cash and donations. The school has a couple of funding sources that probably couldn’t be compared elsewhere; google and the parents ‘foundation grant’ scheme. While Los Altos is a public school, it gets no top up money from the state of California as property taxes in the region are so high, moreover Mountain View is the home of google and there seems to be a huge amount of philanthropy in the area especially towards education, from past students and from local businesses, big and small. This enables the department to fund some of the more ambitious lab experiments and research ideas. The parents group, again by virtue of being local to the school are a great resource and Greg is proud of the grant applications that science has successfully applied for, including the electron microscope. In addition, I hear again about the occasional giveaways of surplice equipment by local businesses and colleges that the department has a nose for.

Having said that, it isn’t just the equipment facilitating research-led approaches. I was very interested to see every lesson packed full of investigative, project-led, teachers-as-guides tasks…this meant that by the time the students were working on the more advanced laboratory experiments or developing their proposals in research class they had a good feel for the skills and methodology required. In physics, Adam Randall’s lesson about circular motion and energy conservation didn’t just have the students setting up the model rollercoaster – they spent time figuring out as a group how to set it up…this then followed comparison to their mathematical models followed by step by step refinement of both the experimental set up and the maths. They then followed this by statistical analysis of the data collected by the whole group. In biotechnology class, lab experiments have been designed based on recent research work in the literature, including those that students themselves have identified. Biotech teacher Meghan Strazicich discussed a paper about the effects of pesticides on the insect population with a student in her class, found some interesting results and contacted the authors. From this she has developed some experiments that will add to the dataset. This is particularly interesting as the effect on the insect eyes requires an SEM to image. Another experiment within the biology framework was looking at the effect of anti-oxidants on the behaviour of model organisms, in this case microscopic worms. The students themselves designed the experimental method and the results of the whole class were brought together to add to a body of data. This element was especially interesting as there is an ongoing debate in the department about how best to encourage and teach better data analysis and statistical methods. Acquiring class-sets of data for experiments has been the first step so that students are working as a large group and thinking about contributing to the body of data rather than simply working on their own or in pairs. This is real research embedded within ‘regular’ classes. You don’t necessarily need the equipment to use a research led approach, whatever equipment or expertise there is can be made use of, but when it is available and used correctly it is pretty amazing what can be done.


Part of the impressive 'prep /atrium/coffee/staff/disussion/office' area

Part of the impressive ‘prep /atrium/coffee/staff/disussion/office’ area.

One last thing that was particularly interesting was the design of the science building. It is a relatively recent building and the California sunshine allows corridors to be moved outside – i.e. students enter the labs from external doors and will go from class to class under covered walkways rather than real-estate-heavy corridors. This allows a single wide atrium through the middle of the entire building which serves as a prep lab, meeting room and office space for teachers. It is absolutely fantastic. What was clear to me was that it allows last minute changes to equipment or paperwork as everything is easily accessible, it also seemed to be a social space that generated lots of useful discussion since everyone was passing through the space. Whether by luck or judgement the design seems to facilitate discussion and I was able to glean more information and share my expertise far more here (or so it seemed!) I don’t know if it was this or the amount/variety of equipment that was in the space, but it felt like being back in a university science department.

If the science teachers at Los Altos are the surfers then I was the enthusiast watching you tube clips of them in action. They have the expertise, they have the well looked after equipment and in an area chock full of tech and enthusiastic students they inevitably have ‘firing epic sessions’…(!)

Special thanks to Greg Stoehr for looking after the ‘kook’ and getting me ‘noodled’ and biology/biotech teacher Jake Russo for the gourmet lunches and what the British call ‘banter’ during the commute to and from school.




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