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From molecules to mobile technology, Palo Alto students pursue research outside the classroom

AAR allows Palo Alto students to pursue their own research questions in a non graded environment

It’s an age old question for local educators: “How can we help Palo Alto students apply their learning in the real world?” Palo Alto Unified has a new answer: the Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, where over 70 local high school students are pursuing their own research questions under the guidance of professional mentors in a unique, grade-free environment.

AAR takes Gunn and Paly students outside the classroom

aar8AAR came to Palo Alto through the leadership of PAUSD Superintendent Dr. Max McGee, who implemented a similar program at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and hired Dr. Jeong Choe to run the program here.  “Palo Alto students often find research positions through friends and family,” Jeong said, “But the AAR program allows us to offer these opportunities to more kids, especially those who might not otherwise have access.”

The AAR program, which is open to both Paly and Gunn High School students in 10th-12th grades, started its pilot year in fall of 2015 and received overwhelming interest from students. AAR is a collaboration between Gunn and Paly, and is managed by a team of teachers that includes Meri Gyves, a teacher who works on career exploration for Palo Alto Unified School District. “The students get high school credit for doing an AAR project in a pass/fail environment,” Ms. Gyves explained, “We are morphing career exploration skills with an authentic research project and connection to a professional in the field to create a different kind of internship experience.”

A chance to take risks and make mistakes

AAR info session at Gunn High school attracted a crowd

AAR info session at Gunn High school attracted a crowd

AAR is different from other Palo Alto high school projects because the course will be graded pass/fail, rather than with a letter grade. Just like in the real world, the mark of success will be whether the research gains external interest.

“Palo Alto students will have a chance to submit their final papers for publication in research journals,” Jeong explained. “The quality of their work will be be judged by other experts in field rather than whether they get an ‘A’. The lack of letter grade is intentional to encourage students to take risks and made mistakes without worrying about the impact on their GPAs- this has been a big shift for the kids.”

From variants to video games, AAR projects explore complex questions

A glimpse at the AAR website reveals a wide array of research projects with a startling level of complexity such as, “Analyzing Furanone Variants For Quorum Sensing Inhibition,” and “Oscillating Absorption Thermodynamics Of Small Molecules On Graphene.” Sounds pretty much like we studied in high school too!

Not surprising for Palo Alto, AAR’s pilot year is heavy on science and tech questions but also includes other themes, including “The Effects of Video Games on Memory,” and “Community Voice: How Writing Groups Have Shaped The Work Of Bay Area Women.”

Mentors provide expertise and help students stay on track

Dr. Choe and her team recruited mentors from many fields to match the students’ interests and provide research guidance.  Mentor Barry Hart, a Paly parent and bio tech entrepreneur with a PhD in organic chemistry, explained how he helped his AAR students identify the right question for their project. “Biology research often requires hands on lab work, but that was not a practical consideration due to the students’ time and logistical constraints,” he said. “So I helped them figure out how to use publicly available protein images to explore and test their hypotheses.”

An AAR mentor meets with one of her Palo Alto students to review progress

An AAR mentor meets with one of her Palo Alto students to review progress

Robert Cheung, who was mentored by Dr. Choe at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and is now a software engineer, is working with students who are pursing a question about machine learning and voice recognition. “We are not solving for x in this scenario, but more like solving for why we’d like to find x in the first place,” he said.  “The students’ mindsets have been fairly malleable to my ideas and input, and I find myself asking them to challenge my own opinions and suggestions.”

Sudhanshu Pant, a Paly parent and entrepreneur, is mentoring students studying how technology can improve access to healthcare in the developing world. “This project has two students who have split responsibilities between business and technology,” he said. “This division promotes collaboration and cross-learning in the team, which is an essential trait for long-term success. The students are highly motivated and have been meeting or beating all the deadlines.”

A call for AAR mentors for 2016-17

Dr. Choe and the AAR team are starting to recruit mentors for the 2016-17 school year, with the hope of expanding the program to include more students and more projects in the humanities and other non-scientific fields. Mentors commit to connecting with their students about every two weeks, starting in late fall and continuing through the spring, using phone, Skype, facetime and in person meetings to keep research projects on track.

A wonderful chance to help students apply learning outside the classroom…

“When I was in high school, the freedom to recognize and pursue personal intellectual curiosities was sorely desired, yet typically inaccessible,” said Robert Cheung. “I’m very thankful for programs like AAR that provide time and resources to challenge students to…turn the institutional tables and start asking and answering more questions of their own.”

Said mentor Barry Hart, “Kids want to go beyond the classroom and apply their learning, and this is a wonderful opportunity to do that. I’m asking my students to do things I’ve never done in terms of technology and they figure it all out because they are so motivated.”

How to get involved with AAR

Sign up to become an AAR mentor here, or visit aar.pausd.org/mentor-information. To learn more about AAR, visit the website (aar.pausd.org) or contact Dr. Jeong Choe at jchoe@pausd.org.

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of GreatSchools.org , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.

1 Comment

  • Thank you Dr. Max McGee for bringing AAR to Palo Alto! This is a great opportunity for our kids. Thanks Palo Alto Pulse for making me aware of this wonderful program. I really enjoyed learning about it.