Three students from Hewlett High School won the $100,000 grand prize in the Siemens Math, Science and Technology Competition for the second year in a row earlier this month — nearly 15 years after a decision by the Board of Education paved the way for their success.
Stephanie Gould, a former Hewlett-Woodmere Board of Education president who came to the board in the mid-1990s, remembers hearing about neighboring Long Island high schools winning various research competitions. “We knew we had to put money into a research program and hire a coordinator to work with the students so they’re submitting everything properly as well as the right kind of studies,” Gould said. “We thought it was worth it to put the money into the budget to have this program instead of hoping a student entered the competition on their own. We wanted to put money into the program so students would have the chance to win; that’s what you have to do.”
At the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year, the district spent $1,507 to get the research program up and running. The following year, it spent $7,500. In 1999, Dr. Terrence Bissoondial was hired as a science teacher, and these days he works with students, typically for three to four years, on their research projects.
“My duties are to teach the students the basic techniques and principles of research in specific research classes that meet daily throughout the academic year,” Bissoondial said. “Sometimes we apply these principles to answer research-related questions.”
He presents students with topics for their plant biology-based research projects. “I expect a certain level of ability and performance from my students,” he said. “I found that when students rise to meet these challenges on their own merits, they’re able to do well when placed in stressful circumstances like the Siemens Competition.”
On Dec. 9, in Washington, D.C., seniors JaiWen Pei, Zainab Mahmood and Priyanka Wadgaonkar presented their project, entitled, “The Isolation and Characterization of an Ozone Responsive Stress Related Protein (OZS) in Ceratopteris richardii,” which showed that multiple copies of the gene OZS would increase plant resistance to ozone, resulting in greater crop yields.
Last year, seniors Jeremy Appelbaum, William Gil and Allen Shin also walked away with the grand prize at the Siemens competition. “The first year was completely unexpected,” Bissoondial said. “The second year, the students felt confident they could win, given our history. They were motivated, capable and extremely resourceful.”
Hewlett-Woodmere Superintendent Dr. Joyce Bisso said that during her time as Hewlett High’s acting principal, from December 1998 to June 2000, and as principal, from July 2000 to June 2006, there were efforts to build the science research program. “These included increasing the number and variety of research-based competitions, expanding opportunities in environmental science and robotics, and engaging multiple teachers in the program,” she said. “Hewlett-Woodmere is a school district of opportunity and excellence. As such, a robust and varied research program exposes interested students and supports the accomplishments of highly motivated and persistent researchers.”
Rebecca Isseroff has guided students at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in Cedarhurst, Rambam Mesivta and Lawrence High School to finalist and semifinalist status in the Intel Science Talent Search and the Siemens contest. Isseroff said it was “amazing” that Hewlett High researchers won the top Siemens prize two years in a row.
“It is no easy feat to win the grand prize in the Siemens Competition,” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work, motivation, initiative, and a certain amount of luck that your experiments work out well. Hewlett High School’s success, especially since Siemens lauds that [Hewlett’s] experiments are conducted onsite, is testament to what can be accomplished when there’s support and emphasis on the importance of high school research.”
Gould said she believes the school board’s decision to fund the research program has had a long-lasting impact. “If you don’t put money into the program, it’s very difficult for it to be effective, and we’ve managed to build a program that many high schools don’t have,” she said. “It’s a decision you make that pays off, and we have to give a lot of credit to the students who have devoted their time to do this.”
Working on research projects, Bissoondial said, students develop lifelong skills. “They develop the ability to ask the right questions and not passively take their surrounding for granted,” he said. “In addition, I teach them the basic framework to address these questions. They’ve learned the necessary principles of scientific method and have cemented excellent academic foundations; they can build anything now with a vivid imagination.”