Sunday Spotlight: North Salem High School’s Science Research Program

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NSHS Senior Krissy Reiss conducts field research as part of the Science Research Program. Photo courtesy of Erin Wasserman

This August, North Salem High School sophomore Nick Pena will spend a week at Tufts University learning alongside his mentor, Dr. Daniela Bedenice, at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Pena will study the effects of anti-parasitic medications on alpacas. Pena has great personal interest in the subject—he grew up working alongside his father, an alpaca judge—but he will also earn college credit for it, as part of North Salem High School’s (NSHS) Science Research Program.

Science Research is a three-year elective course at North Salem High School. Students contribute to a research team while completing an independent research project, earning points for each step of the science research process. There is no other course like this at North Salem according to Erin Wasserman, NSHS chemistry teacher and director of the program.

“This course is on par with an Advanced Placement course, but it’s based on effort,” said Wasserman. “It can lead to science competitions, an internship, a scholarship, or a future career.” What is especially unique about the program is that the students experience science through research-based projects that they choose themselves.

Participants spend their sophomore year deciding what they want to study. Wasserman has the students read articles to help them narrow their interests. Once an area of study is chosen, the student’s next step is to find a professional scientist mentor. Wasserman acts like a coach, guiding students through each phase of the research process and assigning points-based grades for completing various tasks within the research process . The curriculum covers information, listening and observing, scientific reading, data representation and scientific writing. Beyond that, no two students’ projects are alike.

Wasserman’s current group of students are researching health and medicine, electrical engineering, wildlife and invasive plant species. Other projects have ranged from the use of artificial intelligence to the effects of different types of grass on the environment. “I love the flexibility that students have to choose their own topics and follow their own passions,” Wasserman said.

Ruari Randall, an NSHS sophomore, finds it a lot easier to be enthusiastic and motivated about this course compared to most others. Randall is working alongside fellow sophomore Ryan Gameiro on an electrical engineering project aimed at prototyping a better cane for the visually impaired. The pair are learning how to code in order to equip a cane with sensing technologies that will help detect objects in a person’s path.

“Electrical engineering is a mix of code and hands-on problem solving,” said Randall. “It’s a super satisfying feeling to figure out a solution to a problem.”

Randall and Gameiro are both interested in studying engineering in college and see this course as an opportunity to build a strong knowledge foundation while also gaining a better understanding of various engineering fields. “From electrical engineering, I can branch out into a different field,” Randall said.

Gameiro plans to take a similar approach. “I know I like engineering as a whole, the idea of trying to solve a big problem. From this, I will probably try out multiple types and see what I like best.”

Gameiro and Randall have chosen a professor at Columbia University to be their mentor. They go to him with questions and to check their understanding of new engineering concepts that they are learning through their research. “He makes sure that we truly understand what we’re doing,” Randall said.

Jake Yoel, an NSHS senior, has served as an in-classroom mentor to many of the younger students, according to Wasserman. “Through this entire thing, Jake has been building community in our course by creating things for other students,” she said. “He was able to bring people together at a time when we’ve been so far apart.”

Yoel has spent his three years in the program engaged in a project using computational analysis in drug repurposing to treat hemophilia. Drug repurposing involves investigating existing drugs for new therapeutic purposes.

Senior Krissy Reiss interned at the Mianus River Gorge Preserve as a result of her participation in the science research program. Melissa Reiss, Krissy’s mother, said, “if my husband and I had to pick just one piece of Krissy’s years in NSHS that elevated her experience, it would be the science research program. It helped her figure out her career ambitions and was probably a key piece in her being accepted to a competitive university.”

Elizabeth Malvino, parent of a NSHS freshman, hopes that her son’s participation in the program next year will help open doors for him. “I believe the research skills will be valuable to my son as he enters college and beyond,” Malvino said. She’s also eager to see her son develop an enthusiasm for something that he’s truly excited to learn more about. “You never know where these experiences may take you,” she said.

Even beyond college, Wasserman feels that the education students receive in this course help to prepare them for the workforce. “As a society, we’re moving into project-based teams. The ability to do a project from soup to nuts over three years and see all those nuances is a skill,” Wasserman said. “There’s no other class here that can offer that, because there’s no other class that’s continuous over three years.”

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