How to Turn Teenagers Into World-Class Scientists

Andy Bramante coaches his students through projects most professionals would never dream of. Here’s his secret.

Photos courtesy of Andy Bramante

JJust like any other school, the entrance hall in Greenwich High is draped with banners and studded with trophies celebrating its students’ triumphs. Only here, the biggest wins come not from athletic competitions, but from the statewide and national science fairs that Greenwich High has come to dominate — the Google Science Fair, the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and more.

How they’ve done it is now the subject of The Class, a book out this month by journalist Heather Won Tesoriero. Although the students are uniquely impressive, the star of the story is their teacher, Andy Bramante, who runs the independent study–style research class behind all these wins. The son of a single mother in the Bronx, Bramante pumped gas, worked in a tow yard, got a free ride to Fordham, and ended up in a succession of well-paying chemistry industry jobs — but he gave it all up to teach. (“Are you fucking crazy?” one of his co-workers asked him when he shared his decision.)

Bramante’s 50-some students — selected after a competitive application process — work on projects that reflect real-world problems. Bramante uses his connections to equip his lab space with equipment few high schools could dream of buying, like the $250,000 electron microscope one former colleague snagged for him. But it’s not only about gear. It’s also about daring high school students to step away from the usual confines of standardized tests and AP classes, use their imaginations, and spend a year or more on groundbreaking projects.

Medium spoke with Bramante about how he turns promising kids into science superstars.

Medium: How do you ignite your students’ imaginations to come up with the ideas they do for these science fairs?

Andy Bramante: I really try to get the focus on things that interest them. The struggle comes partly because of the success of the kids who came before them — they want that magic project that’s going to win a science fair. It’s really about starting with their own interests, whether that’s chemistry, biology, whatever it might be, and then looking around for things that excite them. I tell them, “If it’s not intrinsically interesting to you, you’re going to fizzle out on it.”

“These students are looking at things in a really imaginative, creative way, without adults telling them it can only be this way.”

They start this process in the spring, before taking the class in the following fall. I invite them to come and see me, because I can quickly give them some feedback as to whether or not something is doable. I’m looking less for that magic project and more for kids who are stepping out from the typical science and really taking a risk.

One of your students developed a quick, cheap, refrigeration-free test for Ebola by saturating silk fibers with chemicals that change color when the virus is present. People might be amazed a high school kid can come up with something like that. Are we underestimating them?

These students are still looking at life through a wide lens. They don’t have any of the biases that we have. They’re looking at things in a really imaginative, creative way, without adults telling them it can only be this way.

That Ebola project, for example: In that case, the kid read a paper by some scientists who had discovered a way to take cocoon silk and make this material that could encapsulate drugs. These papers by scientists [will] suggest where something could be applied, but they don’t actually do it. So, she looked at it and thought, “Hey, maybe we can embed drugs into this silk, and we can start thinking about shipping pharmaceuticals to places where there’s no refrigeration.”

I also tell the kids, as part of the process, to look not only at what interests you, but also what’s problematic in our society. Teenagers are good at homing in on that. They still have that idealism. And all of a sudden this Ebola outbreak occurred, and, boom, it was like a flash. Why not take the diagnostic tools for Ebola and marry it with the silk? It took two years.

I’ve had many professionals say, “Wow, why didn’t we think of that?” Ultimately, it was all there, but it took a kid who really had some imagination, some passion, to see it and to carry it through.

But doesn’t the pressure that we put on kids to build their résumés for college make them risk-averse?

That’s a constant struggle. I often say the kids who are the A-plus students and are constantly worrying about their GPA, their résumé, their homework — those are not the kids who take full advantage of this opportunity. It’s the kid who says, “I can put off that history homework until later. I’m going to sit down now and take time and do something that excites me.” You have to sort of coerce these students to go against the grain. Those kids who are willing to put off what we’re pushing onto them, those are the ones I want.

In the book, you rolled your eyes when the author asked about the role of privilege, which there obviously is in this town. I’m watching parents pick up their kids in their luxury SUVs. By that, did you mean any kid can do it?

That’s part of it. It’s not about income. It’s about creating that opportunity within a school to have something like this. And unfortunately, that’s hard to do without having someone who’s driving innovation in that school, and it also usually involves some capital expense.

I go to science fairs and I get people who come up and say, “Andy, what’s it like teaching in Greenwich?” That’s when I get a little twisted. It’s like any other school. [Our success] is not because of the school. I’ve got friends who support me. You look and you see all this stuff—the school had very little part in that, other than hiring me—and I lean on my buddies [for equipment and advice].

All true, but in a town like this, you have students whose parents went to college. It’s been expected since the kids were born that they would too. Urban first-generation, low-income racial and ethnic minority students don’t have labs with this kind of equipment.

It is disheartening to think, “Why couldn’t this be available to all students?”

You yourself come from modest beginnings.

I’ll never forget where I came from. One of my first years here, I handed a screwdriver to a kid. He didn’t know which end to use. I thought, “Didn’t you ever own a bicycle? A dirt bike?” You worry about that, even as a parent. My own daughter, I took her to Brooklyn to show her what an asphalt playground looked like.

Why did you make the move from industry to teaching?

I often think about that movie Office Space. I lived that conference room, I can’t tell you how many times. And then you come to a job like this, where there’s something so fulfilling and gratifying about unlocking the imagination and creativity of a teenager. You’ve got kids coming back to see you, telling you the skills you gave them helped them, regardless of whether they went into science, business — it doesn’t matter. There’s no high like it.

I remember going to these science fairs early on. These kids got up on a stage in front of 300 people, and they were so polished. You start crying, because you’re thinking, “Look what I’m a part of.” And that’s what drives me.

You refer many times in this book to the students as your kids.

I get to know them very well. What really happens in this room is we’re spending evenings together, we’re spending weekends together, they’re here during breaks. You really get to know them. And then I get nosy: “So, you going to the prom?”

Teenagers, if you treat them like adults, will really respond. They feel like you’re looking out for them. It’s an amazing relationship that happens. They become your own, they really do.

There’s an unusual amount of suspense in this book, considering it’s about a science class: whether these students’ projects will win the science fairs, where they’ll get into college. They’re stressing out in front of their laptops at the appointed time waiting for emails from admissions offices.

I tell them, “I’ve got news for you guys: In 10 years, nobody is going to care where you went to college. Your life will not be defined by where you go to school. It might open a door or two a little wider, but ultimately your life is defined by who you are, how you treat people, and, more important, how you function in a job.”

I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of traction on that.

You know when you get the traction? When they come back. I had lunch with one of my former students last week, and I said to him, “Do you remember all the gyrations and all the angst over science fair winnings, losings, this, that, and college? What do you think about it now?” And he said, “Oh my god, what a waste of time and energy.”

Jon Marcus writes for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other U.S. and U.K. media outlets.

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