How T.C. Produced the Nation’s Top Student Scientist

Regeneron Science Talent Search is the most prestigious of all science and math competitions in the nation for high school seniors, and T.C. Williams High School senior Ana Humphrey just brought home the gold. An Alexandria native, Ana topped more than 2,000 of her peers, including some from private and magnet schools, to win first place for her research on exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. This week, we are taking a look at how T.C. created the nation’s top student scientist.

The win comes after ACPS built up a series of science offerings creating a science research pathway that Ana pioneered onto the national stage. Her success could be quickly followed by a wave of rising stars that are already putting T.C. Williams on the map, according to her science teacher Shawn Lowe.

Leslie Lytle, a senior at T.C., will be presenting her research that develops biodegradable bioplastics at the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in New Mexico. George Washington Middle School students Shota Pinkowski and Lucy Savarie are on their way to Broadcom Masters, the national science fair for middle school students.

Ana’s interest in science was piqued in Mary Breslin’s seventh-grade class. At the start of each school year, Breslin’s class focuses on data collection and analysis and science fair. In the second half of the year, students pick one of their classmates’ projects and work to solve an issue in Alexandria. Then they implement it. That year, Ana’s class selected her science fair project that helped to rehabilitate wetlands in Alexandria. This year, five classes are tackling different problems in our local ecosystems and the environment.

I have realized that the engagement the kids have with solving something real in their community sparks an interest in them for science for the long term,” Breslin said.

In other schools, students are taught the scientific process, but they aren’t taught to solve a real problem, according to Breslin, who won the Environmental Protection Agency’s Presidential Innovation Award in 2013.

When you allow them to work in the real world, these things matter to them, and they feel like they can contribute something. That is where Ana’s engagement was really sparked,” said Breslin.

Middle school is when students in ACPS are becoming hooked on science through hands-on, project-based learning and a new emphasis on every student taking part in science fair. From there, interested students apply to be part of the ninth-grade STEM Academy at T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus and some choose to go on to the science research program. This gives ACPS students the opportunity to follow their research project over multiple years with a lot of support from teachers.

Schools are allowed to showcase 60 projects at the Northern Virginia Regional Science and Engineering Fair where students compete to go on to the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair. This is the first year that ACPS brought 60 projects and 70 percent of them won either first, second or third place.

Out of 300 contestants at regionals, 19 students from T.C. Williams, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle schools and Jefferson-Houston School came in first place. Leslie’s project was a first-place winner, but also came in third best in the entire fair. She is an alternate to go to the international science fair. Five T.C. Williams students who garnered first place will go to the state competition in Roanoke in April.

In 2016, there was a big push at the middle school level to bring consistency across all classes and make sure every student was participating equally in the science fair, according to Jennifer Lay, science instructional specialist for ACPS.

That helps once they reach high school since all the kids come in with knowledge from having done these projects and have experience and background that enables them to do higher level multi-year projects,” said Lay.

The number of successful students is definitely on an upswing, according to Lowe.

I have never had five students go to state. Students are arriving in my class with solid skills and often a project in hand and they are ‘rocketing’ ahead,” she said.

Ben Matthews heads the STEM Academy and he said science fair is a way to get students interested by studying something they are passionate about, then build on that to teach skills for independent research.

In ninth grade we have the only true cohort to get students excited about STEM and give them maximum support,” Matthews said.

STEM Academy students are supported by all their teachers, not just for science, but also in math and English where they learn to analyze data and write about their projects.

That has been incredibly valuable for student growth and interest. Once kids get to high school, if they stick with the research program, Lowe is able to take the student’s ideas to a whole new level,” said Matthews.

Lowe’s research class is focused on each individual student’s projects and can be taken for one to three years. She meets with them in the spring and asks them to spend the summer figuring out what they want to study. During the school year, they work on their projects and she helps manage the process, teaches them how to communicate their concept, how to troubleshoot and how to network.

What makes us unique is we ask what they want to study and we support them in learning how to do it. When students don’t have all the resources they need, the school finds them,” Lowe said

Lowe has successfully tapped grants to help her students reach their potential. One current project needed a drone. She found a grant so two students can develop its search and rescue capabilities. The Society for Science gave Lowe a grant to pay for the computer Ana used for her exoplanet research. Often when students win competitions, they win money for the school’s research department.

I’m doing better at helping them dream bigger, use their lab notebooks to record their story, test their projects and build more elaborate projects that evolve more quickly,” said Lowe.

Now, ready for the next challenge, Lowe would like to double or triple the number of students who come to the science research program. ACPS came in first in the nation in the most rigorous competition, despite having fewer students in the program than rival schools. Lowe likes to imagine how many more students could launch scientific careers from T.C.’s classrooms with a larger group of students.

There is another benefit, too. Having more kids in the class allows them to nurture each other, challenge and support one another,” Lowe said.

Matthews agrees and has been thrilled at the increase in diversity at STEM Academy. This year the Academy has students who speak 20 different languages.

STEM Academy teachers work really hard to recruit and encourage students to be part of this program. Now that we have students winning some major awards we hope it will encourage more to get involved to make this the most diverse program possible,” Matthews said.

Ana cherished Alexandria’s diversity so much she never considered attending any other school.

Every ethnicity, every country, every socioeconomic status is represented. You can’t get that anywhere but here, at T.C.,” Ana said.

Learn out more about the  T.C. Williams STEM Academy. And, if you know an eighth-grade student who is interested in STEM, the deadline to apply to the program is March 31. Learn more.

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