All through a cold December night last year two high school students from Santa Rosa, California set traps for rodents in a 365-acre marine reserve over 20 miles from their homes. As part of their science class at Piner High School, they were collecting data for a project on feral cat activity, working not only with their regular science teacher but with a mentor from the University of California’ s Bodega Marine Laboratory. The course is part of an innovative three-year program called “The Science School,” offering accelerated and specialized instruction in science, math, technology, English, and social studies to some 150 students at this 1500- student Coalition member school. To personalize its curriculum, Piner is organizing itself into several such “learning communities,” each with its own integrated curricular focus and each with the freedom to structure its own time and resources. The Science School curriculum centers around local community problems and resources, requiring each student to complete a year-long project as part of a research team mentored by area science professionals.
The projects grow out of the mentor professionals’ own needs, ranging from a team that monitors the water chemistry and biology of the city’ s urban streams to a sports medicine group exploring anatomy and physiology through kinesiology and conditioning. Many carry college credit at the University of California. Mentors are usually paid by their own employers as a donation to the school, and most put in many extra hours of their own time.
These are demanding, honors-level courses in a school not previously known for academic excellence; they require a level of commitment from students and their parents that would be unusual in any high school. Field research for the feral cat project, for example, entails regular 50-mile round trips to the research site and physically demanding, often tedious outdoor work. Students must work comfortably with adults and up to ten other students, and because they are part of a professional research project they must be precise, meticulous, self-motivated, and responsible in its execution. Each student maintains an ongoing portfolio of the progress of her work, complete with abstracts, evidence, and analysis of group and individual work. “I hope some day [the work we do on the Bodega Marine Reserve feral cats] to be as good as publishable,” one student researcher wrote in her final report, “and believe me, I am going to try my hardest.”