Kudos to advanced student researchers at Staples

Staples High School students, from left to right, Will Boberski, Sara De Pinho and Julianna Gallo describe their science research projects to the Board of Education last week. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT – The Board of Education, normally preoccupied with issues of policy, discipline and budgets, took time out of its meeting last week to listen to students present on a research project involving microscopic worms, fruit flies and mice are involved.

The six board members present loved it.

“This was a pleasure to hear,” said board vice chair Dorie Hordon. “To hear about such a positive academic experience in high school.”

Stafford Thomas, principal of Staples High School, said the school board should consider keeping the high school graduation requirement in place next year.

The presentation on a revamped honors-level science research course was one of two Staples High School programs highlighted during the meeting.

The second involved districts’ efforts to meet the state’s requirement that all students add a one-credit Mastery-Based Diploma Assessment, beginning with the graduating class of 2023.

Two years after implementing the mandate, which requires students to document through a portfolio how classes have helped them as “communicators, thinkers, collaborators and creators,” the board was told the state is rescinding the requirement with the Class of 2025.

Still, Staples CEO Stafford Thomas argued for continuing the requirement because it’s something the New England Association of Schools and Colleges — the school’s accrediting body — also wants.

“They look forward to evaluating it during their upcoming visit,” Thomas told the board of the agency representatives.

Research at university level

When John DeLuca was hired as district science coordinator two years ago, he presented a compelling vision of what a science inquiry course could look like, Supt. of schools, Thomas Scarice told the board.

The existing course suffered from a declining number of registrations, which meant that it had not been offered for a number of years. The decision was made to make the class more engaging by giving students the opportunity to create their own hypothesis and conduct authentic research on topics they are passionate about.

Using a repurposed storage space and equipping it with a fluorescent microscope and other equipment not normally found in a high school science lab, the class started with a dozen students who spent the summer writing research proposals so they could be in the could start in the fall.

“Some of them came in knowing nothing about how to ask a scientific question and present their ideas,” Amy Parent, the course instructor, told the board. “They’re actually asking me for funding and resources. They must support their ideas with science, research and literature reviews.”

A total of ten students participated this year. Next year, 15 students are expected, including four students who will take the class for a second year to continue their research.

This year, six students completed projects in time for the Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair. Three were finalists. In addition, all twelve gave presentations at a Norwalk Community College Science Fair, the board was told.

One of the students, Will Boberski, used fruit flies to determine the role that dietary factors play in the development of colorectal cancer. His findings were presented at an international youth forum in Singapore.

He told the school board that he enjoyed the time he spent looking into a microscope.

Student Sara De Pinho used mice in her research into why half of all IVFs fail with embryo transfers, so ways can be found to create a treatment plan that increases the chances. She is now working on her project with a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University.

Julianna Gallo, another student, subjected microscopic worms – smaller than the tip of a pinky nail – to various dietary changes, including introducing probiotics to find out if it would help alleviate cellular stress and inflammation that lead to obesity. Her treatment showed promising results.

“I plan to continue my research next year so I can measure longevity and overall inflammation,” Gallo said. Her goal is to point to a cost-effective alternative to pharmaceutical interventions to reduce obesity.

“That was incredible,” board secretary Neil Philips said of the presentations as his colleagues burst into applause.

Students were asked how different the class was from the other classes they took at Staples.

De Pinho said the beauty of the lesson is that mistakes are a learning opportunity and not a disaster; growth is more important than results.

“We all had completely different projects, but were going through a similar learning process,” Gallo said. “I literally messed up my entire project three times, but it all turned out fine in the end.”

“It’s definitely a process, but in the end it will pay off, I promise you,” De Pinho added.

“This is Staples High School, Westport public school education at its best,” said board member Robert Harrington. “It’s a shining example of how it works well… It’s great to see.”

Harrington said it should inspire the energy and drive to make more achievements like the research projects possible.

Mastery-based credit

As for the state’s requirement that students spend time reflecting on what they learned during their high school years, Thomas told board members that the staff has worked hard to make the experience not an “add-on,” but something that juniors and seniors could supplement by collecting information. a portfolio of their work in specific classes, and then during Connections Class in senior year, creating a virtual capstone.

Anya Nair, a Staples senior and student representative on the board, said the capstones are shown to incoming freshmen to help advise them on issues such as time management.

The completed requirement will be added to the student’s transcript. About 99 percent of students this year have done so, Thomas said. Two teachers supervise the portfolios.

Board Chairman Lee Goldstein asked how much time it will take for students to complete the requirement.

Calum Madigan, a Staples junior and student representative on the board, said he enjoyed looking back on old assignments to help build the portfolio. The time commitment? About twenty minutes, he said.

“It is so rare that the state takes away an obligation. I wonder if this is an opportunity to let that go,” Goldstein said.

In a memo to the board, Thomas says that no fewer than four recommendations from NEASC relate to the portfolio assignment. Three other peer school districts that have received recent NEASC visits have received positive feedback on similar portfolio assignments, he added.

The board promised to keep the subject on the radar.

Other actions

At the same meeting last Thursday, the board said:

  • Reconciled the budget for the 2024-2025 financial year based on the measures taken this month by the representative city meeting. The $143.6 million budget is 5.38 percent higher than this year, but $3.6 million less than the board’s original proposal due to changes in employee health insurance.
  • Accepted a $7,500 gift from the acting group Staples Players to fund stipends for an assistant choreographer, lighting designer and One Acts Direction mentor.
  • It was agreed to continue a practice started this year of welcoming two student representatives – a high school junior and senior – to the board table. The board agreed to revise the bylaws again next spring.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications for more than forty years, is a member of the Education Writers Association.