Two-Year Deep Dives at Laguna Blanca

Science Research Program Is Latest Track for Motivated Students 

Two-Year Deep Dives at Laguna Blanca

Science Research Program Is Latest Track for Motivated Students 

Staci Richard (center) is the head of Laguna Blanca’s Science Research Program. | Credit: Courtesy

Laguna Blanca has long been known for signature programs. With titles such as Mission to Mars, Soapbox Derby, Urban Adventures, and its TEDx talks ​— ​returning in February after last year’s pandemic pause ​— ​the independent school embraces project-based learning. 

A recent addition, launched in 2017-18, is the Science Research Program, a two-year course of study for motivated students to pursue an invigorating and “deeply edifying odyssey into the weeds of scientific inquiry,” said Tara Broucqsault, the school’s communications director. 

Heading up the program, Staci Richard said it’s grown considerably since its initial cohort to a little more than 40 percent of eligible students.

The Science Research Program starts in 10th grade by growing each student’s understanding of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field and teaching them how to read research papers and exposing them to a range of speakers and discussion groups to help channel their enthusiasm. 

In 11th, the students select an emphasis ​— ​examples include solar energy, aquaculture, robotics, AI, and Alzheimer’s research, among other pursuits ​— ​for a full-year dive that’s guided by mentors, most of whom are based in Santa Barbara. (Last year, via Zoom, the program pioneered remote mentorships, some with out-of-state experts, Richard said.) 

This second year consists of a thorough examination of one specific area. At year’s end, it’s fashioned into a comprehensive report and final presentation before an audience of peers, parents, mentors, teachers, and Laguna Blanca boardmembers. These presentations are essentially 15-minute “conference talks,” says Richard, and include visuals, questions from the audience, and a recap of the student’s two-year STEM journey. 

All of it is buoyed by Laguna’s recently opened Center for Science and Innovation, anchored by new biology and chemistry laboratories and the built-out Nakamura STEM Research & Innovation Lab, an interdisciplinary maker space for 3D design and robotics. “That’s an important piece of the program,” Richard said.

“It can be hard to ask kids to do real research,” she reflected. “It’s a long process, and they see how hard it can be. Sometimes it feels to me that they’re doing undergraduate research. And as these students are going off to college, we’re seeing that they’re more confident meeting and talking with professors and getting access to research laboratories.”

That’s a big plus, she says. But the flip side can be good, too. “Some students learn along the way that what they thought would be interesting really doesn’t interest them. And that’s been another great outcome.” 

Either way, she added, their eyes have been opened to a much broader range of STEM careers than they would normally see in high school. “And it’s been a great way for the kids at Laguna Blanca to take advantage of the great things happening in Santa Barbara,” said Richard. “They’re connecting with doctors and tech people and nonprofits. It’s been a way to build community.” 

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