Meet You in the Robotics Lab

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Wander the halls of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Fairfax, and you might think you’re in a state-of-the-art research institute. Lining its hallways are 14 labs devoted to such specialties as robotics, biotechnology, neuroscience and oceanography, among others. The school also has a planetarium and a supercomputer. Most colleges would be happy to have any one of those.

     T.J. is a public school, and students from six neighboring northern Virginia counties are eligible to attend. But it’s also a magnet school, meaning students must pass though a tough admissions process before gaining one of its coveted entrance spots each year. “Things that are important, that we want of all our T.J. graduates—I think they are incredibly difficult to measure in a [conventional] application process,” says principal Dr. Evan Glazer. Hence, the school works to separate intellectual wheat from chaff. The admissions process includes a math and verbal reasoning test, along with an essay section, and of course the school reviews the grades of all prospective students. Last year, 2,500 eighth-graders applied to T.J., and fewer than 500 were accepted to join a total student body of 1,807 (including freshmen). One-third of T.J.’s students are Asian.

     Some of those who are accepted travel as far as two hours by bus to get to school, waking up at 5:30 a.m. every day and getting back home as late as 7 p.m. “They intentionally come here … so that they can be environmentally stimulated, and even culturally stimulated,” says Glazer. “T.J. is an environment where students no longer feel like social outcasts for having genuine intellectual curiosity.” T.J.’s debate and chess teams are frequent winners of state, regional and sometimes national competitions, and the school has a United Nations club, with students representing different nations and debating students from other school clubs at U.N.-style meetings.

     Established by Fairfax County in 1985, as a “first line of defense” for American’s high-tech and science sectors, T.J. requires a large amount of funding. In 2005, the school raised more than $620,674 dollars from corporations and private individuals to help cover costs. This year’s equipment wish list includes such items as atomic force microscopes, molecular modeling software and a particle delivery system. Estimated total cost: $845,875.

     Glazer argues that the payoff is easily worth the price. “I think we offer courses that wouldn’t be offered anywhere else. We try to draw connections across disciplines. Kids learn to create a research project and write a research paper. What’s nice about the school is that it’s not just the science or tech teachers who are thinking about research, but also humanities teachers.”

     Those who enter the school are the best and brightest, and the most driven. This year, a new minimum grade point average requirement was instituted—earn a 3.0 or be reprimanded. Only 1.5 percent of the students were sent to the principal’s office. Many students enter various math and science competitions and pursue research projects independent of the school curriculum. Daniel Dy Tang, a senior, explains the school’s appeal: “Really, what I love is that everyone is really accepting. I once got the question, ‘What percent of the school are nerds?’—and the only answer I could give is that all of us are. You could call everyone a nerd. We’re able to embrace it.”

     Senior Matthew Shepard echoes the sentiment. He’s a minority at T.J. because he has no interest in math or science. Still, he was drawn to the school because of the intellectual challenges. “That’s the reason I came,” he says. “It was the environment that brought me here.”

     And where do T.J. grads go to college? The school has long been a pipeline to the University of Virginia—218 students were accepted last year by the Wahoo admissions office—but that impressive number is only the beginning. Twenty-nine T.J. seniors were accepted into Princeton, 19 into MIT, 12 into Harvard, 48 into Duke, 124 into William and Mary and 12 into Johns Hopkins. According to school officials, last year’s graduating class was offered more than $15 million in scholarships.

     All the success isn’t without sacrifice. “We try and remind the kids to have well-balanced lives,” says Glazer. “We want them to exercise; we want them to spend time with their families; and, when there are vacations, we de-emphasize homework.” Balance is not as easy to achieve with T.J. kids, he suggests, because “they are incredibly motivated people.”

     A mandatory senior research project must be completed before graduation. The project can be from any of the labs, and students often do their projects in cooperation with local companies, interning on-site while they complete their projects. Shepard is making an instructional digital video disc that explains to consumers how to assemble, in a step-by-step process, a new bicycle. It is designed to replace the paper booklets that he “hates.” Says Shepard: “I designed it in a computer-aided design lab, and you can pause it and stuff.”

      Challenges like that project make T.J. different, says Glazer. They also keep parents of middle schoolers up at night, worrying about how they can get their kids into the school. “[We have] freshmen in calculus,” says the principal. “Our kids take a lot of AP exams. We’ll always have a lot of National Merit Semifinalists and great SAT scores, but in all honesty, that’s not what makes us unique.” What’s important, he says, is what you do with students who are good test takers. How can you challenge them in creative and meaningful ways? Perhaps it starts with having a group of teachers who are overachievers themselves.

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