I went down to DC yesterday to interview folks at the Intel Science Talent Search finals for a City Journal article (slated for the autumn issue). As I go to more of these events (Siemens, Davidson, ISEF and Intel STS) I am continually struck by how certain schools show up again and again: the Texas Academy of Math and Science, Thomas Jefferson (in VA), Ward Melville in New York, Montgomery Blair (in Maryland) and a few others.
One of those this year was Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California, which had 2 finalists (and 6 semi-finalists). Unlike some of the others, Lynbrook is a regular public high school and doesn't have a long institutional history of sending kids to the Intel (or Westinghouse) finals. It only started happening a few years ago.
Why? Because of a young teacher named Amanda Alonzo, that's why. You can read this profile of her in the San Jose Mercury News.
Basically, she got excited about scientific research and invested the time in starting a program and mentoring her students. Over the past few years it has paid off. Several of her students are now going to get loads of scholarship money, and possibly have more college choices than if they had not been Intel finalists or semi-finalists.
It's a fascinating thought experiment. Clearly, the latent talent was there at Lynbrook. But a motivated, talented teacher helped develop it. If Mrs. Alonzo was teaching somewhere else, would there now be a major research program at another school? Would her students have done what they did? It is hard to know. The two I interviewed at Intel yesterday were obviously incredibly bright and hard-working and came up with their own ideas, so it is quite possible they'd still be there. But probably several of Mrs. Alonzo's students who didn't make it to the top reaches, but learned a lot about science in the process, will pursue careers in the field. The question is whether Mrs. Alonzo can be replicated.