Sandia Preparatory School
“We’re Thinking For Ourselves”
A student puts her hand on her forehead as she stared intently at a copy of Difco’s Manual of Dehydrated Culture Media of Reagents for Microbiological and Clinical Laboratory Procedures.
“This is frustrating,” she says, to no one in particular. An 12th grade student in Ernest Polansky’s Advanced Biology class, she was in the midst of a four-week effort to identify a strain of bacteria from among 24 possibilities with known characteristics. Arrayed on a table next to her were test-tubes containing dozens of solutions – sugars, acids, etc.—that she and the other students could use to test the characteristics of their strain against the traits of the 24 possibilities. During the four weeks of experiments, each student would get three guesses at the identity of his or her strain.
“It is like a Sherlock Holmes investigation into the secret lives of bacteria,” said one student.
Mr. Polansky is head of the Science Department at Sandia Prep and has been a teacher there for over 30 years. As he circulated around the lab, a student approached him with the results of an experiment. “I think you’ve overlooked a couple of little items there,” said Mr. Polansky as he continued his rounds, not wishing to elaborate. The student sighed and went back to his table.
Such are the tribulations – and occasional joys – of doing real science, the kind where figuring which experiment to perform is half the battle, where the accuracy of one experiment may depend on the results of another, and where students can end the day with more questions than they had when it began. “It is like a Sherlock Holmes investigation into the secret lives of bacteria,” said one student.
But you won’t find labs like this in an AP Biology class. Mr. Polansky’s bacterial unknown lab is more than 20 times longer than the typical AP lab. With so many facts and processes to cover, AP teachers cannot linger for a week on any particular lab activity – let alone a month. The parameters of AP labs are narrowly defined – “cookbook labs,” as Mr. Polansky calls them. Students must follow the prescribed procedures to get the prescribed results, and often do so in one day, before the teacher dismantles the lab set-up to get ready for the next day’s activity.
Some of Prep’s advanced curriculum looks like that at any other school – Calculus and Calculus II, for instance – but other subjects feature theme-based electives rather than surveys. English students can dig into meaty electives such Philosophies of the East, which samples works such as Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse; Contemporary Apocalyptic Scene, which examines the struggles of characters in works such as Life of Pi and Peace Like a River. Another elective, Literature of the American West, examines the West with works such as A River Runs Through It, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Reservation Blues. Popular history electives include American History Through Film, Western and Eastern Philosophy, and Global Studies, the latter providing students with a weekly copy of The Guardian newspaper while putting current events into historical perspective.
“Students are at the top of our organizational chart,” said one teacher. “What we do is tailored to our kids, not a standardized test.”
“Our finest students get a truly college-level experience, beyond what a survey course could give them,” said one teacher, who notes that Prep’s primarily commitment is to what it calls the five A’s: Academics, Athletics, Arts, Activities, and an Atmosphere that is supportive of all students, including those who primary talents are in non-academic areas. Rather than subjecting all students to “the race to get a three or better” on the AP, Prep teaches a curriculum intentionally designed to challenge students at a variety of ability levels simultaneously.
Mr. Polansky’s students simply appreciate the fact that their work is real. “I cared about our labs because we had to figure them out on our own,” said one student. “I didn’t just do them to get a grade. I did them because I really wanted to kno
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