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San Jose high school racks up national science awards under teacher’s leadership

By Elizabeth Hinckley | 18 Nov 2011

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San Jose's Lynbrook High School celebrates math and science students with rallies, the way many schools celebrate athletes. Science teacher Amanda Alonzo poses here with students Porva Jain and Ruchi Pandy. (Photo: Elizabeth Hinckley/ Peninsula Press)

Science teacher Amanda Alonzo zips around her classroom, scooting desks into concentric circles for Friday afternoon’s “Socractic Seminar.” Her physiology students will lead a dialogue on caffeine addiction, a subject that will prove prescient as the day wears on and the Red Bulls wear off.

Students meander into the biology classroom at Lynbrook High School in San Jose and plop down into the arranged chairs. A petite, youthful dynamo with dark-blond hair and a dancer’s body, Alonzo reminds the class that she is only observing today, not participating.  “It’s part of the process of inquiry that we teach here,” Alonzo says as an aside. “If I tell them the answer every time, they don’t learn to think for themselves.”

Inquiry-based learning is the cornerstone of teaching at Lynbrook, along with collaborative teachers, a supportive administration and the requisite inquisitive, bright students. These school attributes are not unique in Silicon Valley, but Lynbrook’s STEM Research Program has gained national recognition.

Football rallies are a reason to let students out of class at most high schools. Lynbrook holds them for its science rock stars. “Last year, we held a surprise rally for David Liu when he was announced as a national winner for Intel,” says Principal Gail Davidson.  ”The entire student body showed up and the students were holding him up on their shoulders, like a hero.”

Headed by Alonzo, the research program, from its inception, has created both direct and indirect positive results for Lynbrook. Since 2009, there have been 11 national semi-finalists and two finalists for the Intel Science Talent Search — arguably the industry’s most prestigious awards for young scientists — with more than $300,000 won for various competitions. Graduates of the program have attended many of the nation’s prestigious universities. More broadly, across the school, many point to the research program as one causal link to increased state test scores in math and science.

Chemistry teacher and STEM mentor Roy Rocklin narrows the school’s edge to a combination of Alonzo’s leadership and the students’ raw talent, creating a program that feeds off itself.

“There are other schools around here that also have a large number of Silicon Valley children.  At Lynbrook, the students see their friends doing it and they want to do it to. Amanda is a woman of action, who has established a culture of interest in research here,” Rocklin says.

While the program started with a lone student researcher in 2004, today it has 57 students who receive no academic credit for their work. They must prove passion for their research subject, through a project proposal process as rigorous as some graduate school thesis topic reviews.  Those selected receive an allowance of $50.

“The big thing that I emphasize is asking them what they love about science, what makes them say ‘wow,’ because these students will spend at least 50 to 100 hours on this,” Alonzo says. “They need to have the drive and passion for that topic, to keep doing it.  They also have to answer why anyone else cares.”

Some critics of Lynbrook’s success say the school is pushing too hard to resemble a science magnet school. Alonzo disagrees. “When my STEM students present their research, they aren’t just using math and science skills, they are using writing skills from English, as well as social studies, speech and debate, and the performing arts,” she says. “When we talk about the comprehensive nature of our high school, it all works together.  I don’t want them to be the typical engineer who can’t communicate with anyone else besides engineers, I want them to be the engineer who can communicate with everyone else.”

Mentors Matter Most

Friday’s final bell rings, and the physiology students drift out in clumps, the caffeine low replaced with the thrill of impending mischief, as the weekend beckons. Ruchi Pandy and Porva Jain quietly slip into the classroom to discuss their research projects with Alonzo.

A shy and soft-spoken freshman, Pandy talks passionately about her interest in developing a natural flame resistant material, using commonly found ingredients. Her eyes blaze brightly. “I love Lynbrook and its culture,” she says. “All the students are trying to do good.”

Sophomore Jain, a recent transfer from a private all-girls school, agrees: “They teach you, but it’s like you do what you want.  There’s more freedom.  You have to work hard, though.” Jain has three aunts who are doctors.  As she talks about her summer internship with one of them, a pathologist studying lymphomas, she becomes animated. “She took me to a research conference where I met all of these doctors and scientists, it was awesome.”

Alonzo stresses the importance that mentorship plays in the research program, particularly with girls. “In order for there to be more future female scientists,” she says, “there need to be more competent female role models and mentors.”

She knows all too well. As a dance major at Pitzer College, a liberal arts school in the Los Angeles area, Alonzo wanted to be a teacher “…but science wasn’t even on my radar.  I remember feeling confident in math but crying in my high school chemistry class. I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t think I was good at it and it reflected in my test scores.”

On a lark, she signed up for a university biology class, in order to hang out with her pre-med friends. She stumbled upon Meg Mathias, the first female science teacher she had encountered.  Mathias “was amazing and really focused. She knew why she was doing what she was doing, and what it meant to the rest of the world. That struck me as being important.”

There has been steady growth in women declaring majors in the fields of life and earth sciences, particularly over the past decade, according to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). However, in the same study, women in engineering and computer science make up less than 25 percent, with just under a third in chemistry.

In middle school and high school, socialization is an issue, as girls are led to believe these fields are not for them, and female role models are also few and far between, studies by the women in science association and the National Science Teachers Association have found.

“It’s amazing how many stories I hear, just like Amanda’s, from women in science. With few teachers pushing them to continue their interest past high school, a female mentor in their field makes a difference,” says Julie Dunkle, Intel Corporation’s U.S. Education Project Manager.  “We try to recruit more women judges for the (Intel) Talent Search, so the kids can see it’s not all men.”

The research also claims the stereotype of girls’ not doing well in science is mostly based on one fact: they are often—and most often inadvertently—treated differently in the classroom.

At Lynbrook, girls and boys are split 50/50 in science classes and more than half of the science teachers are women, including the research program mentors. Of Lynbrook’s Intel semi-finalists, about half were girls.

“Initially it was a lot of boys in the program,” Alonzo says. “I shifted the focus to get more girls involved, not specifically targeting them, because I feel that is condescending, but trying to increase draw in general.  That brought in the girls.”

Cultural Paradigm Shift 

Since 2004, standardized test scores at Lynbrook have seen a double digit jump in math and science, placing it among the top comprehensive high schools in California. The school has been named a California Distinguished School five times and recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School.

Last month, the school was honored with Intel’s School of Distinction Award, the only traditional public high school in the United States to be recognized.

“What’s happened at Lynbrook, is a cultural paradigm shift, where doing well academically is admired and celebrated, “ Dunkle says. “We were impressed with the school because it is about inquiry for all and research for the interested.  Every student participates.”

The Intel Corporation, and various partners, are working with Alonzo and her team to bring Lynbrook’s magic to lower-performing schools in the Bay Area.

One might wonder how Alonzo keeps her energy level up while balancing both sides of her life, as both a wife and the mother of two children. “I think it’s just impossible, the idea of doing everything,” she says. “Something I’ve had to accept is that I’m not always going to feel together, and there will be times when no one gets the best of me.”

Alonzo’s eyes light up when she talks about her 7-month-old and 3-year-old, and what she hopes to instill in them as a parent.

“This idea of inquiry and questioning is important. I answer every one of my daughter’s whys because I want her to keep asking. Why is the best question in the world.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named principal Gail Davidson as Gail Stevenson.

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