In general, American high school seniors rank near the bottom in math and science when compared to many of their peers around the world. But not the students at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology near Washington, D.C. Thomas Jefferson is one of a select group of American public high schools where teens are exploring math and science on a level generally reserved for university students.
At first glance, the school seems like many other suburban American high schools. Between classes, noisy students spill out into crowded hallways lined with lockers. But talk with some of the students about what they are working on, and it's clear that this school is different.
"I am testing the effects of creatine on earthworms," says Thomas Jefferson senior Scott Cole, as he works in the biosciences lab. "Creatine monohydrate is a supplement used in bodybuilding to enhance muscle gains. I'm feeding it to earthworms. Hopefully they will grow to be larger than the average earthworm." So far, however, Scott says he has been unable to get the worms to eat the creatine.
Tim Smith, George Harris, and Makoto Bentz are seated at computer workstations in the microelectronics lab. "We're working on a Japanese text-to-speech synthesizer," George says. "It takes in whatever input we give it, converts it to a sound, and you hear Japanese from whatever English you put in."
Other seniors at Thomas Jefferson are designing buildings or fashions in the computer-assisted design lab…building robots in the robotics lab…creating a video yearbook in the video technology lab…or developing a microbial fuel cell in the chemical analysis lab.
Students can choose from 12 different science and tech labs in which to do the senior projects that are a requirement for graduation. Rahul Guha says students spend much of their first three years at Thomas Jefferson preparing for these yearlong research projects.
"In order to get into a lab," the senior says, "you have to work on a proposal in freshman and sophomore year, a philosophy of what you want to study. Then you have to start taking core classes to specialize in that lab. For example, you can study DNA science to get into the biotechnology lab, which I am in."
Rahul is doing his lab work off campus at a state university as part of Thomas Jefferson's mentorship program. The director of the program, Jerry Berenty, says students serve as lab assistants to working scientists in the region, applying what they have learned in school to real world science and technology.
"They may be working on stem cell research at the NIH [National Institutes of Health]," Mr. Berenty says, "or working on pathologies at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Astronomers work at universities and the Naval Observatory. They make great discoveries and commit themselves to endless amounts of hours to the type of work that a lot of these research types cannot afford to hire someone to do."
The mentorship program and the on-campus labs are two things that set Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology apart from other schools in Virginia's sprawling Fairfax County. "Students at other high schools do mentorships and research opportunities, but that isn't as formalized through the school," says county high school science specialist Myra Thayer. In other schools, Ms. Thayer notes, a teacher or parent has to informally arrange such options.
While the emphasis at Thomas Jefferson is on science and technology, students have a broad range of other interests -- from athletics to drama, and from art and music to politics. Extracurricular activities give them ample opportunities to explore those interests. In fact, some students, like Sasha Tobin, decide by their senior year to pursue a career in a field outside of science and technology.
"I'm interested in politics, maybe foreign service," Sasha says. "I'm taking a lot of courses geared toward that. I'm taking European history. All four years I've taken Spanish. So I hope to go into a more humanities-oriented career rather than science or research."
No matter what field they choose, graduates of Thomas Jefferson High School will be well equipped for careers in the technology-driven 21st century. But the students here represent an elite group, even within the region. Last year, more than 2,600 eighth graders applied for a chance to study at Thomas Jefferson instead of their local high school. Of that number, only 450 -- less than 20% -- were selected, based on test scores, grades and recommendations from their teachers.