Innovation Schools and Youth

3 reasons why Palo Alto students are buzzing about AAR

What event drew a crowd on a warm spring evening in Palo Alto recently? If you are guessing a lacrosse playoff or band concert, think again. It was the “Celebratory Showcase” and poster presentation for PAUSD’s (Palo Alto School District’s) Advanced Authentic Research (AAR), a new program that has Paly and Gunn students buzzing with excitement.

PAUSD Superintendent Dr. Max McGee, Board President Heidi Emberling and AAR Research Coordinator Jeong Choe

PAUSD Superintendent Dr. Max McGee, Board President Heidi Emberling and AAR Research Coordinator Jeong Choe

The packed crowd of parents, students, teachers, mentors, principals, and even school board members came to JLS to find out what the 70+ AAR students from both Gunn and Paly learned through their research, and why kids are clamoring to join the program next year.

Based on our very non-scientific research (talking to many enthusiastic AAR students), we devised a hypothesis. AAR is popular for three key reasons: It’s risk-free, student directed and includes strong mentoring and support. Oh and one more- despite the fact that many of the projects required 80-100 hours of work, the AAR students all said it was really fun.

3 Reasons why Palo Alto high school students love AAR

1. We can explore ideas risk-free 

AAR was the first “pass/fail” class many of the students had experienced, and the ungraded environment was a welcome relief. “AAR was different because it was so open-ended- there was no restriction on what we could do,” explained Jenica, a student from Gunn whose project explored the genetic mutation of cancer genes. And with no grades, it was enjoyable because I was not stressed out about getting an A.”

This AAR student studied the name of cars because..she loves cars!

This AAR student studied the name of cars because..she loves cars!

Providing students a safe place to explore, make mistakes and keep trying is an intentional part of the AAR design, according to AAR Research Director Jeong Choe. As she told the students gathered at JLS, “The road is not always straightforward. Learning to readjust goals and plans is not just part of research, it’s also part of life.”

2.  We choose the research questions to pursue

The range of questions that students set out to answer through AAR (you can find a complete list here) reflects the wide interests of kids in Palo Alto, from cars, to sports, to cancer research, science fiction and more. And the best part for the students is that they were able to pick something that was interesting to them, not what they had to study for a test or paper.

Explained Lena, whose project analyzed the use of words in how cars are named, she picked her topic for one simple reason: “I really like cars and I’m interested in everything about them.”

The three Paly cross country runners who researched the impact of hydration on performance were similarly self-motivated. “We just really love running,” explained Elliot, “so doing all the time trials was actually fun for us and we learned how to manage a project over many months.”

This student wrote a science fiction novella as part of her project

This student wrote a science fiction novella as part of her project

Two other AAR students explored a question close to home- how accessible are academic resources outside of school for PAUSD students? “It was surprising for us to learn that not every student is ‘perfect’- the majority of people are getting some kind of help outside of school,” said one of two students on this team.

And to prove just how interested these students are in their AAR projects, many of them have submitted their research for publication and some of the seniors plan to continue pursuing their questions when they go on to college, or even turn them into businesses. The students who researched tutoring are exploring how they could develop an app or program to make outside academic resources available for more kids.

3. We work with caring adults who offer advice and help

Each AAR project team is paired with an adult mentor who helps guide the students through the research process, find resources and advise about time management and planning. The mentors for this year’s chohort came from tech companies like Google and Uber, along with scientists, doctors, engineers, writers, musicians and more. Most mentors were local community members, but Jeong Choe found others through her experience running an AAR program in Illinois. Students kept in contact with their mentors through in person meetings, Skype, email and conference calls.

This AAR student looked at genetic mutations in different kinds of cancers

This AAR student looked at genetic mutations in different kinds of cancers

Many of the AAR students we met said that working with a mentor as their favorite part of the project. “It was an unrivaled opportunity to connect with someone in the workforce and learn how they approach things,” explained one student.

Biggest challenge? Time management

Just like in the adult world, the students named time as one of the hardest elements of AAR. Whether it was finding time to meet with their mentors or learning how to chisel away at a project over many months, the long-term nature of AAR presented students with many opportunities to learn how to manage their time. “Unlike school projects, we couldn’t wait until the last minute to finish this,” said one student.

The long term and flexible nature of AAR also allowed students to fit it around other, more urgent deadlines such as college applications and AP tests. “Our mentor encouraged us to space out the work and he was flexible about when we needed to complete different deadlines,” said two students whose project explored beta-receptor inhibitor optimization.

Collaboration with Social Justice Pathway and DreamCatchers

IMG_6029One set of AAR projects were developed in a partnership between DreamCatchers, a Palo Alto nonprofit that helps low income middle school students, and the Social Justice Pathway (SJP) at Paly, a three-year interdisciplinary program rooted in community action and collaboration. The SJP students were tasked by DreamCatchers executive director Barbara Sih Klausner to measure middle school confidence in mathematics through a series of mini-research projects. The insights they gained will inform DreamCatchers’ curriculum and continue next year.

AAR students demonstrate passion and commitment

AAR came to Palo Alto through the leadership of Superintendent Max McGee, who had seen the impact of a similar program in Illinois. So he was thrilled to give the opening remarks at the research showcase on May 16th and to congratulate this first group of students for their willingness to jump into a new initiative. “When we turn on the television in the future, we will see your work and your vision,” he told the crowd.

Added Jeong Choe, “The AAR students are here because they have both passion and really good ideas. A lot of people have ideas, but without action, those ideas don’t mean much.”

To learn more about AAR or become a mentor, visit aar.pausd.org.

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These three Paly cross country runners studied the impact of hydration on running performanc

These three Paly cross country runners studied the impact of hydration on running performance

All photos by Palo Alto Pulse

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.

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