When you're graduating near the top of the class, your next step cushioned with scholarships, May could be a smooth glide toward commencement. But not for the students in the Ingenuity Project at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Recently in an advanced math class, students hunched over desks, taking notes as fellow classmates presented strategies for hurdling such subjects as Pythagorean theorem proofs.
Moreover, they were having fun.
Although exams are long over, these teen-agers seem reluctant to leave the intellectual world that has nurtured them. They are among the first graduating students of the Ingenuity Project, a rigorous and innovative program designed to increase achievement in math and science.
For some, the journey began in 1994, when the project launched with 60 sixth-graders who took advanced math and science classes in addition to regular courses at three city middle schools. The next stage of the program unfolded at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where Ingenuity students took classes in Poly's vaunted "A" Course as well as college-level math and science courses. In addition, they received support and guidance in outside research and lab work.
It was a bold concept: The Abell Foundation created and funded the Ingenuity Project to discover whether Baltimore's public school system could produce students who were academically sophisticated enough to compete against the nation's top math and science students.
With the right enrichment and mentoring, Ingenuity planners hoped, gifted students might even produce original research worthy of entering the Intel Talent Science Search, the Olympics of secondary school science.
At no extra cost to students, Ingenuity would provide teachers and advisers. It would supplement regular instruction with computer labs and coaching for academic competitions. It would fund summer work-study sessions and introduce students to Living Classrooms Foundation instruction on the Chesapeake Bay.
In return, the Ingenuity pupils - selected on the basis of testing, interviews and academic records - also had certain obligations. To stay in the program, they would attend school regularly with no unexcused absences. And they would maintain an average of 80 or above in all course work.
The dream: Under guidance by the right mentor, each student would find research compelling enough to commit to the extra work required by entering the Intel competition. Five of the program's first senior class did just that.
Working evenings, weekends and summers around the demands of homework and jobs, these teen-agers learned the excitement and the pitfalls of real-life research. When they finally submitted their projects to the Intel Search last December, they became the first city public school students in recent memory to enter the prestigious competition, according to Ingenuity director Karol Costa.
Melissa Martinez, Dennis Spencer, Al Brzeczko, Yi Zheng and Tameeka Williams competed in a field of 1,592 applicants for the $100,000 award often called the "junior Nobel Prize." And while they did not make the final rounds of competition, they managed to set the bar for their younger colleagues at Poly. Their hard work demonstrated that dedication and discipline fuel achievement as much as genius. And to reward their pioneering efforts, the Ingenuity Project sent them on a field trip to Paris over spring break.
Here are snapshots of these students and their work.
If Melissa Martinez had remained in the Philippines, she believes, she might never have gone to college ... and certainly would not have discovered how much she loves biological research.
At 9, she moved to Baltimore, where her mother had found work as a nurse. By the time she entered the Ingenuity program four years later, she had mastered English. And when she reached high school, she plunged deep into courses which shaped her thoughts about her future.
In 10th grade Martinez began working with a mentor at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Heath. Dr. Thaddeus Graczyk was studying the transmission of cryptosporidium, waterborne parasites, and Martinez investigated how house and stable flies carried the parasites on their bodies and in their intestines.
The work eventually led to the Intel competition - and to the more important realization that she felt at home in a lab.
"I think I'm pretty good at [research]," the 18-year-old says. "I'm really meticulous and the kind of personality where everything has to be straight before I do anything. I remember the lab tech saying 'You're cut out for this sort of thing.' And I like this kind of work."
Martinez recently presented her research at the state's Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at the University of Maryland. President of the National Honor Society at Poly, she will attend the College of Notre Dame of Maryland on a full scholarship, planning to pursue a joint degree program in biomedical engineering with Hopkins or Columbia.
Last weekend, Dennis Spencer placed seventh in the state in the 800-meter track event. Captain of Poly's track and cross-country teams, the 17-year-old senior also played percussion in the school band for three years. Spencer appears most content when he's juggling lots of challenges, such as the rigorous lab schedule dictated by his Intel project. Working with scientists at the Columbus Center of Marine Biotechnology, Spencer studied how well certain ancient bacteria - similar to those scientists suspect traveled on meteorites - could survive the rigors of space travel.
Last summer he became a courier on a scientific mission to bring live bacteria to New Mexico for a research-related space launch. The test was designed to determine how well these "extremophiles" could withstand hostile temperatures, vacuum and ultraviolet rays.
Would the research scientists be able to bring the cells back to life?
And would that suggest that extraterrestrial "extremophiles" might have provided the tinder that started life on Earth?
Maybe. The question continues to tantalize the Ingenuity student.
Next year, he will go on full scholarship to Morehouse College to begin a five-year joint degree program in biomedical engineering with Columbia University. In June, he begins a preparatory program for the NASA summer internships he will hold over the next four summers.
"Many people don't get this kind of experience before college," Spencer says. "People have bent over backward to give us experiences we wouldn't have had somewhere else."
Al Brzeczko entered the Ingenuity Project as a second-quarter freshman when his family moved to Baltimore from North Carolina. Soon afterward, he met his mentor, Johns Hopkins University researcher Randal Goldberg, in a robotics program.
Now as he heads for Carnegie-Mellon University, Brzeczko continues to refine the device he helped Goldberg design and build. His instrument, intended to facilitate knee surgery, is called the Smart Alignment Tool for Knee MosaicPlasty.
The device helps align a surgical chisel which removes cartilage grafts from non-weight-bearing sections of the knee to implant them in sections which have worn out. Current protocol calls for the surgeon to use an endoscope to help gauge harvesting and implantation. Brzeczko's tool, mounted on the chisel, removes visual guesswork by better determining the angles for the surgical procedures.
During his years at Poly, the senior particularly enjoyed participating in the Maryland Junior Science and Humanities symposia.
"The aspect I liked most about Ingenuity has been the electronics and computers," Brzczeko says. "And it's given us the chance to take really tough courses."
Yi Zheng bounds up the stairs to the apartment behind No. 1 Taste, his family's Chinese carryout, to check up on his 9-year-old sister's homework. He traveled back to China two years ago to help his parents adopt Jenny.
"I want her to grow up to do well on her SAT," he explains. "My own vocabulary skills are not yet up to standard, and I want her to do better."
Nine years ago Zheng was struggling with the rudiments of English. Now he's graduating ninth in his class at Poly and heading off to the University of Maryland with at least three scholarships and dreams of a future in biological engineering.
What happened in between was the Ingenuity Project, the curriculum recommended by his English as a Second Language teacher.
For the past two years, Zheng worked in a lab at Hopkins hospital on what became his Intel project: a study involving proteins which affect the growth of cancer cells. He also worked with engineers at Northrop Grumman, where he will return this summer.
Next fall he will join three other Ingenuity students at UM, rooming with classmate Andrey Zhuk. And the best thing about the program?
"Learning to communicate with my mentors," he says. "And the exposure to the science world."
When Costa interviewed Tameeka Williams, she remembers an eighth-grader who was very shy. What sort of things do you like? Costa probed. I like animals, the girl responded. I really like being around animals.
Ingenuity helped Williams find summer employment at the Baltimore Zoo and also to define a research project: Documenting an unexplored way that rhinos, hippos and giraffes may communicate.
While it is known that elephants use infrasound, low frequency vibrations, in communicating over long distances, no one has collected similar data on other African herd animals. Williams decided she wanted to build an instrument that could measure sounds humans cannot hear.
Using the guidance of engineer Raymond Brown to build the infrasound-detecting instrument, Williams clocked a lot of hours in the hippo house and rhino barn. (Elephant infrasounds were used to provide the baseline of data to which she compared her findings.)
Over a year's time, she was only able to record about 10 sounds, not enough from which to draw conclusions. However her research recently won first place in biological sciences at the annual Morgan State University Science-Mathematics-Engineering Fair.
Next fall, Williams will attend UM in an honors program on full scholarship. She figures that, without Ingenuity, she would still be pretty much the same - except for one important thing:
"Getting into research is the real thing I wouldn't have done," she says.
And research, as a zoo veterinarian, is exactly what she wants to do.
The Ingenuity Project's first senior class will be honored tonight at an awards ceremony at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Next week, the 17 students will be honored again at a meeting of the Baltimore City school board.
Achievements by Ingenuity participants this year include: a 10th-grader who competed in the USA Mathematical Olympiad; a middle-school academic league team that placed fourth in the nation; and a team that placed second at a state competition sponsored by the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Ingenuity students continue to score far above the national average in all years of math and science testing, according to director Karol Costa.
The Ingenuity Project is open to all city applicants. Supported by the city's school system and funded by the Abell Foundation, it is administered at Roland Park, Robert Poole and Southeast middle schools and at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Current enrollment is 376 students.
More information about the program is available from Karol Costa at 410-662-8665 or via e-mail at email@example.com.