Creativity Marks Sleepy Hollow’s Comprehensive Science Research Program

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by Zoe Kaplan

In 1997, science research at Sleepy Hollow was simply thought of as a program for high school students. However, that was soon to change as department chair Gregory Vallach suggested taking on the program.

Janet Longo-Abinanti’s willingness to volunteer landed her in training soon after – and today she is still leading the program, 18 years later.

Science research is a three-year long program typically started when a high school student reaches sophomore year. In the first year, sophomores learn how to research: students read journal articles, keep track of new vocabulary, and create presentations on their findings. Once junior and senior year roll around, students use their skills to go ahead with their own studies. Many students work in labs over the summer to collect data, then work during the year to create a cohesive project based on their findings.

When the program started at Sleepy Hollow, Longo-Abinanti taught 13 students. Now, there are over 60. Michele Zielinski, former science teacher at Sleepy Hollow, joined Longo-Abinanti last year. But two’s company: both agree that they rely on one another, communicating daily to keep track of student progress. “She’s the best partner I could ask for,” said Longo-Abinanti.

Zielinski’s background in engineering made her a perfect colleague as engineering projects have recently become popular in the science research world. She currently works with sophomores and juniors, with Longo-Abinanti taking care of the seniors.

Zielinski said sophomore year is a critical time for enhancing creativity, background research, and reading. She’s initiated a new “shark tank” project where students work on developing a new product or making “an old one better.” Amazed and enthusiastic, Zielinski listed many of the student’s innovative ideas: redesigned water fountains, a “cleat clamp” to help tie shoes, and a “clip stick”, an environmentally friendly alternative to cafeteria utensils. “It’s all about creativity and science. The two work really well together; it’s what’s necessary in science research.”

Zielinski’s favorite part of the program includes the various projects students work on. “Students have fantastic ideas. They’re all about what’s new in their field, and that’s exciting,” she said. “They’re solving real world problems – problems that we all can relate to.”

Once projects are completed, students participate in numerous competitions with other science research participants. Sleepy Hollow hosts the Westchester Science & Engineering Fair (WESEF) each spring; winners of this competition move onto national competitions, such as Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) and Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), as well as international competitions, such as International Sustainable World Energy Engineering Environment Project Olympiad (I-SWEEP).

Sleepy Hollow’s first win came with Elizabeth Johnson in 2003 Intel STS, where she was a semi-finalist. Success only continued, with Olivia Gilliatt as another Intel STS semi-finalist and WESEF finalist. Sleepy Hollow was the first to bring students to the international competition I-SWEEP, where they won first place four years in a row.

While the science research program at Sleepy Hollow may be competitive in competitions, inside the classroom things are different. “It’s not about winning…it’s about working hard. All of them work hard. It’s about having a project that you’re proud of, something you can explain and really understand,” said Longo-Abinanti.

Students work together rather than against one another – Longo-Abinanti attributes this to the program’s open enrollment. Sleepy Hollow allows any interested student into the program. “They’re self-selected. It doesn’t matter if they’re first in the grade or 87th. We’re here to support them because they want to be here.”

Many of these self-motivated students have seen their efforts come to fruition. The program has sent kids off to colleges such as Harvard University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those who aren’t pursuing science comment on how the class helped them for college-level research and presentations; students who do have many publications in their respective fields.
“The coolest moment for me was watching a student present, looking at her references, and seeing she had used my former student’s article as a source,” Longo-Abinanti said.

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