As ninth-grade students in the Academy of Science will discover this week, there are many different approaches when attempting to change the speed of a pendulum. While the answer may be important — by changing the length of the string — the route to discovery is key. By promoting knowledge through student-designed lab experiments, the newly opened Academy of Science at Dominion High School will nurture students in their understanding of the physical world.
"You don’t love science if someone just talks to you for 45 minutes a day," said George Wolfe, director of the Academy of Science.
Wolfe, who arrived in the school district this July after spending 20 years teaching at Wilson Magnet School in Rochester, N.Y., is dedicated to providing an education that shows how the physical sciences mesh. The idea makes sense — in order to understand the atom, one needs to know neutrons and ions, and to have an understanding of rocks and minerals, one must know the Periodic Table. The world may not be as rigid as the science curriculums often show us, and Wolfe is determined to make his students understand this.
"If they start doing this as a freshman, think of how skilled they will be and what great thinkers they will be," said Wolfe.
OPEN ONLY TO FRESHMEN and seniors this year, students will attend the Academy of Science part time—alternating days between their home school and the academy. This provides students with the opportunity to excel in higher level academics, while still maintaining a relationship with their local school.
"This allows you to split time and be a part of your home high school," said Wayde Byard, public information officer for the Loudoun County school system. "It is more of an academy, not a governor's school. Students can still participate in home sport teams."
More than 200 applications were received from rising freshmen and 62 will be attending at the start of this academic year. With a goal to present a well-rounded, integrated science curriculum, freshmen will begin their high-school career with math courses at the algebra two level. They will also be placed on a three-credit science track that will span through their sophomore year. Two science credits, focusing on the physical sciences, will be completed by the end of their first year. The third will be presented their sophomore year as students become introduced to independent research methods.
The senior class, which totals 23, will take a more hands-on approach to the sciences as they delve into the senior research program.
"Senior research is the cornerstone of the program," said Jayne Fonash, guidance director for the academy.
Students will develop an independent research project that will be the focus of the second semester. For the project, each student will be paired with a mentor from the teaching staff. Totaling eight staff members, the majority of the teachers also have professions within the science community.
"This will make them more prepared for science research in college." said Fonash. "Having a mentorship experience is also going to make them more attractive college candidates."
FUNDED BY A GRANT from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which the Loudoun County school district receives every year, the Academy of Science is planning to eventually have around 60 students in each grade level. With class sizes smaller than normal, the administration is hoping that a family relationship will develop. Teachers are expected to not only instruct, but also nurture. Each teacher will act out an advisory role for the students.
"We see the advisory role as a unique situation," said Wolfe. "Teachers will become a link between the home and school."
Assigned 12-16 students each, designated teachers will remain instructional mentors for all four years. This relationship started developing before the school year began as teachers made house calls to introduce themselves and meet their students.
"We really do see this as our family, that we guide our students over the next four years." said Fonash.
Higher level teaching requires higher level technology. The Academy of Science will benefit from the best that the school district has to offer. All six classrooms of the academy will be equipped with interactive white boards, known as Smart Boards. Each student is also assigned their own laptop, which can connect to the Smart Board through a wireless network. This provides a highly interactive learning environment essential for participation and growth. In science labs, video capability has been attached to microscopes and DNA technology will be used.
"We have everything from the simplest to complicated," said Wolfe. "We have nothing a good high school or college lab wouldn’t have."
With the maiden year of the academy just beginning, it seems that this week’s pendulum lab, with its trial-and-error methodology, is analogous to the school. As the academy is the first of its kind for the county, the route it takes to provide enlightenment will be the benchmark for the rest of the county. Developed over the past three years, this is just the beginning of the school district’s master plan to locate academies at schools throughout the area. With students spending 180 minutes a day focused on the physical sciences, state of the art technology, and real world experienced teachers, the future of the Academy of Science at Dominion High School is bright.
"Our dream and goal is to have a facility where top notch research can be done on our bench, not outside," said Wolfe.