Andy's science research class is unlike any other class at Greenwich High, a Connecticut public school behemoth with 2,650 kids. There is no curriculum, no tests, textbooks, or lectures. Students pitch individual projects that they work on throughout the entire school year with the goal of taking their discoveries and inventions out on the national and global science fair circuit. This is not the stuff of vinegar volcanoes and ant farms. Kids tackle problems like cancer, Parkinson's disease, HIV, heart disease, cheap water filtration, and carbon dioxide capture, sometimes making discoveries that elude adult scientists three times their age.
Andy Bramante arrived at GHS in 2005 as a chemistry teacher and picked up the research program the following year. In the years since, he has turned the program into a juggernaut, amassing one of the most impressive track records in America when it comes to kids competing in the science fair world. Year after year, his kids dominate the fair circuit and take home prizes in unprecedented numbers—all of which is particularly impressive because Andy is far from a career educator. He walked away from a successful run as a scientist in corporate America to teach high school.
The stakes of everything that happens in Andy's science research class seem to rise exponentially here in Greenwich, population
62,000, a beautiful seaside town that borders New York State and offers sweeping views of the Long Island Sound. It's a town beset with competition, even beyond the usual suburban jostling for bigger houses, better cars, and sterling children. But beneath the readily apparent affluence, Greenwich is a multifaceted place— and a lot more diverse than you might think. At Greenwich High School, 21 percent of the student body is Hispanic, 9 percent is Asian, and 4 percent is African American. Greenwich also has considerable populations of immigrants and expatriates; GHS is home to kids from sixty-one countries. Twenty percent speak a language other than English at home.
Andy's class fully embodies this diversity and spans the poles of Greenwich privilege. He's had a student whose family spent thousands of dollars to outfit a custom lab in their basement, as well as a kid to whom he offered a sweater, thinking he could use what for Andy was a holiday castoff. He regularly has students from families for whom money is so abundant, it's an afterthought. By contrast, he teaches kids who live so far outside the money bubble, their families rent modest condos because purchasing a home in this town—the median home price is $1 million—is nowhere within reach. One year, a kid asked for an extension to pay the initial $150 project fee because he was covering it from his after-school job earnings. And when it's become apparent that a kid's family can't pay for some of the extras, Andy finds a way to pick up the costs without ever mentioning it to the student.
The common thread among all these families—the multi-generational Greenwich establishment as well as the new immigrants who live (figuratively and literally) far from the country clubs, rowing clubs, polo grounds, and lush estates—is that they want their children to get a superior education and have chosen Greenwich for this reason. But in so doing, they have entered into a uniquely competitive culture of achievement—one that plays out in Andy's class.
The science fairs hold a powerful draw for Andy's students. For starters, there is prestige attached to even getting accepted to
compete in a fair, where kids display sleek posters and give daunting oral presentations about their work. They stand in crowded, buzzing auditoriums, dressed up like mini adults (jackets and ties for boys, pumps and skirts or dresses for girls), fielding a barrage of questions from judges, as if defending a dissertation. The entire experience brute-forces them into a solo public performance where they expound on the intricacies of their projects, every word their own, propelled forward by the culmination of their hours in the lab, hard work, frustration, and, finally, show-worthy results.
The fair experience is arguably one of the best facsimiles for an adult high-pressure situation, made more so because many
competitions ban parents and teachers from the actual arena. So there are no supportive glances, open arms, and big hugs—or
meddling. This isn't like being on the debate team, which has the rah-rah aspect to it. Or being in a school play, where even if you fumble, someone else steps forward to fill the silence. No, these kids must demonstrate total mastery over their complex inventions and the underlying science. They have to describe in detail, say, the construction of a tiny polymer vessel loaded with cancer drugs and metallic particles that is guided directly through the bloodstream to a tumor by a handheld magnet over the skin. (That was an invention by one of Andy's star veteran students.) And the science fair format can be a harsh about-face from Greenwich child-rearing culture, where, as one teacher put it, "every parent thinks their child is a special flower." The judges don't fan the flames of ego or puff the kids up. They take critical aim at their work, to insure the competitors both know the content and were actually the ones who produced it.