The Book of the Week is “The Class, A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America” by Heather Won Tesoriero, published in 2018. Despite its sensationalist title, this volume provided a fascinating inside look at one program at an elitist school where brainy kids prepared to fiercely compete for big money and prestige on the high-school science-fair circuit.
The cliche of the baking soda/vinegar volcano as a winning project at the science fair ended decades ago. A Greenwich Connecticut school offers a specific course for self-starting kids passionate about science, whose sole purpose is providing resources– experimental equipment, materials and supervising teacher– with which to enter science fairs.
The author related about ten of the kids’ experiences in the form of vignettes– their personally chosen projects and whether they won an award, personal details of their home lives, prom adventures, and college acceptances or rejections, etc., roughly over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, with backstories.
The supervising teacher of the class, who had previously acquired a couple of decades of scientific experience in private industry, had hand-picked the lucky 48 applicants from different grades who partook of this unique opportunity.
They got access to his guidance and professional scientific devices that even well-funded school districts don’t have. Yet another reason Malcolm Gladwell might brand them “outliers” is that some of the chosen students were younger siblings of ones who had gone before.
Most of the science fairs or prizes thereof are funded by corporations and benefactors with big names, such as Google, Intel, Amazon, Xerox, United Technologies, etc.
A great irony is that the event itself is called a science fair when in reality, there were instances mentioned by the author in which the judging of projects was thought to be unfair by the teacher, contestants or their parents. The reasons that certain entries won awards and others did not, were unexplained.
The real reasons would have to be revealed in litigation–probably beyond the scope of this book. It must be said that the author did not mention any litigation.
Nevertheless, since major business entities are running the show, the projects must certainly be seen in terms of their commercial applications, not just in terms of their potential for societal good, like curing diseases or finding new sources of renewable energy.
For instance, one girl’s project that was passed over for an award involved computational biology. The software she coded was, with 80% accuracy, able to identify the most effective breast cancer drugs. Without question, that project had a very valuable commercial application that would open a Pandora’s box.
In another case, a boy who was competing for an “XPRIZE” was advised by his personal attorney to drop out of that contest. He was exceptional for various reasons, much more advanced than his classmates– already attempting to patent his work, and the kind who has the potential to be a future Nobel-prize winner.
At the other end of the spectrum, the author also wrote about kids who weren’t able to get their acts together, due to honest ineptitude. However, the author also related that, in previous years, there had been mean-spirited activity in the lab. In the documented academic year, there was cyberbullying by students and parents even in the science-fair community (!), borne of jealousy and whiny sour grapes expressed by the non-winners. Sadly, as is well known, the parents can be worse than the kids.
Read the book to learn of the triumphs and setbacks, trials and tribulations of the privileged kids and their teacher.