Cassidy: Pulling back the curtain on Silicon Valley's science powerhouse
February 6, 2010
San Jose Mercury News
By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist
I walk into teacher Amanda Alonzo's classroom to ask her how it is that Lynbrook High School has become such a science power, and there she is tearing into a box labeled "refrigerate immediately."
Can you believe it, she asks me? The lactoperoxidase is here!
Who wouldn't be excited by the arrival of a bovine enzyme? OK, maybe you wouldn't. And neither would most people, but Alonzo is not most people. She's crazy about science.
How crazy? I've barely introduced myself and she's going straight to cow's heart.
"We did a heart dissection last week," she says. "And I was in there pulling the muscles apart." She loves what she teaches her students, she says. "I think that it rubs off on them."
Apparently. You've heard of high schools that are football factories? Lynbrook is a science factory. It's a place where, propelled in large part by Alonzo's enthusiasm, science is cool.
Last week Lynbrook had a pep rally to honor two budding scientists. (Suggested cheer: Give me an H. Give me a 2. Give me an O. What's it spell? Water.) The whole school came out to cheer on David Liu and Raman Nelakanti, who are advancing to the Intel Science Talent Search finals next month. It's the first time a California school has sent two students to the finals. And it is a big deal. (The winner receives $100,000.)
Such success stories must be heartening to those worried about the state of science, technology, engineering and math education. And plenty are worried; from Silicon Valley CEOs fretting about the future work force to the U.S. president, who's launched an attack on slipping student scores.
Alonzo, 30, has been working hard for years to make science prowess a point of pride. And it might be working.
"Everyone is really excited for us," says Nelakanti, 17, who's become a big man on campus for working on a more efficient way to produce hydrogen from algae. "Everyone is just supportive of each other."
It all started about eight years ago, when Alonzo was new at the school. A freshman asked her to help him enter the county's Synopsis science fair. Lynbrook didn't have a formal mentoring program. The student was tackling an engineering problem and Alonzo was a biologist. But, she figured, what the heck?
"I saw how much he loved it," she says, "and his enthusiasm spread to me."
The freshman, Anjaney Kottapalli, is now studying aerospace engineering at MIT. Alonzo, he says, "kind of provided a sanity check on all the work I'd done."
No, Alonzo was not a science fair veteran. Science was not her thing at Vacaville High.
"I was not into it at all," she says. "I cried after chemistry tests." Then a physics teacher senior year sparked an interest. And friends at Pitzer College inspired her to take a biology course from Meg Mathies, who it turns out is a teaching legend. Alonzo was hooked.
She's realized since that there is plenty good about science fairs. They allow kids to compete and to receive recognition — maybe not star quarterback recognition, but recognition. The fairs put science into students' hands — the students figure out the scientific questions they want to raise and how to answer them. And they figure out what benefit their findings might offer the wider world.
Alonzo applied for and won a $30,000 grant in 2003 from Intel to encourage science education. She started a lunchtime and after-school program aimed at helping kids come up with science fair entries.
"I started with two students," she says of the extracurricular program. But it grew each year. Students joined (about 60 are participating now) and teachers joined (Alonzo says her colleagues are major contributors). The students compete in county, regional and national competitions.
Like a top 10 team, Lynbrook is racking up the stats. Six of the eight Lynbrook students who entered the Intel contest made it to the semifinals. Alonzo's classroom is decorated with years of plaques and trophies: Department of Energy Science Bowl, Outstanding School from the Synopsis science fair, California State Science Fair Teacher of the Year.
Alonzo even talks like a coach. Her kids are passionate, dedicated, she says. They leave it all in the lab. And like any good coach, she's already looking toward next year's recruiting class.
"We've never had this many students interested," she says, "so I have really high hopes for them."
And why not? It's how dynasties are born.
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