The Academy of Science (AOS)

The Academy of Science (AOS) in Loudoun County, Virginia, is a very unique public high school. While students spend half their days taking humanities courses at their home high school, the other half are spent at the AOS within Dominion High School. Here, they take integrated math and science courses. These classes are heavily focused on the physical sciences and emphasize critical thinking and inquiry. Sophomores learn about research techniques and start to design their two-year research project. They develop their ideas with the faculty at the AOS to design a focused and reasonable research plan, submit their proposals at the end of sophomore year, and conduct this work under the mentorship of a teacher during junior and senior year. Some of these students collaborate with others at the Hwa Chong Institute in Singapore or the Daegu High School in the Republic of Korea.

The AOS has advanced technical equipment available for student use. A partnership between Loudoun County Public Schools and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), whose Janelia Farm campus is located in Loudoun County, enable this caliber of experimentation at the AOS. To learn more about this unique program, ASBMB interviewed Mr. George Wolfe, director of the academy.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the AOS start? What has changed since?
When HHMI was building Janelia Farms they worked out a deal with Loudoun County. HHMI would pay fewer taxes but would donate $1 million each year to the public school system to support a science academy. We were literally able to build the school of my dreams using this funding.

Our core design, that dream, is where every student does a two-year independent research project of their own design on our benches. From the day the students walk in, they take an integrated science course where they learn to think critically and creatively to get to the level of an independent researcher. Even our math is taught with inquiry.

Our research has gotten better and better and better every year, as teachers have learned to better mentor kids through their research projects. That was a learning curve for us, as many of our teachers learn about these techniques along with the kids.

Over the years, as student research sophistication has grown, so has the need for equipment. Using funds from the HHMI grant, the AOS has added an SEM, HPLC, FTIR, rtPCR, BSL 2 certification, Fluorescent Microscopy, and a variety of other tools not typically available to high school students.

Our applicant pool has expanded significantly since we opened. We’ve gone from 185 applicants for 68 spots in year one to 860 applicants this year.

What are your students like?
Our students are generally highly motivated and have very strong math skills. We have a very high bar for our applications. As anyone with or working towards a Ph.D. knows, the only way to really master something is by attempting experimentation and failing. We call inquiry the freedom to fail, and that’s what we give our kids. We give them the freedom to fail through the research process, and you’ll be astounded when you talk to these kids and see the level of their work. They are smart, but it’s because of what we do and the way we do it that they are a cut above.

Why should scientists and ASBMB members get involved?
I’ll give you an example of one of our students who reached out to a scientist to their great mutual benefit.

One of our students, Emily Crisp, was studying clownfish. Dr. Nanette Chadwick, a professor at Auburn University, is an expert on the ecology and behavior of tropical sea anemones, including the symbiosis of sea anemones and clownfish. Our student heard about her work and asked if she could visit Dr. Chadwick’s lab. “She decided to attend Auburn partly because I work on clownfish and I agreed to welcome her into my lab. She and her clownfish (she brought 5 or so with her) came to my lab in August 2011. She has been doing research in my lab ever since, and will graduate in May with an honors marine biology degree, and an honors research thesis completed in my lab,” says Dr. Chadwick. She goes on to say that “It has been a wonderful collaboration, and stemmed from her outreach to me, due to her project at AOS. It was her excellent research project at AOS that led her to my lab. I would be happy to have AOS or other high school students intern with me, and have done so in the past, for other institutions.”

What I would love for scientists and ASBMB members to do is to be open to the possibility of helping a kid, like Dr. Chadwick did, and realize that there may be a way to get that kid to work in your lab someday.

Will you be able to accept more students in the future?
Class size is very important to us. When we do inquiry in a ninth-grade classroom where kids are doing physics, they need individual attention. Teachers guide the kids through the struggle of creativity, and you can’t do that in a class of 24 – 26. With only 11 rooms and 10 faculty members, we can’t accept more students where we are now.

However, the community agrees that we have a gem here. The school district and the voters of Loudoun County recently approved a bond to build a new STEM center that we’re in the middle of designing now. We plan to move into that new building in 2018, and we will be able to double our enrollment in the next five years. Two other schools will be combined into this one building, the C.S. Monroe Technology Center and the brand new Academy for Engineering and Technology. All three schools will maintain their separate identities, but the shared facility will give students opportunities to collaborate with each other.



How can ASBMB members get involved?
What we need are scientists that are willing to be mentors to our students. We do all the research on our own here, and there are times when our kids and our teachers run into walls. If I had a clearinghouse of people that our kids could write to for help if they’re stuck in an area where our faculty can’t help them, it would be great. For example, one student is studying how concussions in fruit flies affect their underlying neurobiology. If we had a list of names that she could go through to find an expert on fly neurobiology and fly behavior that she could write to, it would help her a lot.

ASBMB members and our kids can both benefit from internships. The people who invite our kids into their labs are usually overwhelmed by the quickness with which these kids learn and the techniques they’ve mastered at sixteen-years old, and they require only a minimum of training. If you as a scientist are open to helping our students, maybe you can benefit as much as Dr. Chadwick and Ms. Crisp.

Please contact Mr. Wolfe [] if you are interested in working with the Academy of Science.