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Ossining, Yorktown high schools lead surge in science research

Ossining High School senior Daniel McQuaid, 17, who

Ossining High School senior Daniel McQuaid, 17, who recently submitted his entry in the Intel Science Talent Search, is photographed in the school's science research room. McQuaid is a regional finalist in the Siemens Foundation Competition in math, science and technology. (Nov. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

Dan McQuaid is on the brink of discovering a treatment for two types of cancers. Amrita Ramesh and Sania Khalid are connecting the dots between the brain's makeup and autism. And Henry Tareque said that humans may be responsible for the extinction of mastodons in North America.

The Ossining High School seniors are members of their school's science research program, which compares with other such programs the way the Yankees compare with other baseball teams. Well-funded, they win big every year at national competitions. Even their top rival in the region -- Yorktown -- acknowledged that Ossining is unbeatable.

Well, except by Yorktown, that is.

"You ask other school districts, 'Who's the evil empire?' They'll say Ossining and Yorktown. They never stop doing science research, and it's impossible to catch them," said Yorktown science research teacher Michael Blueglass.

The enthusiasm and student success surrounding schools like Ossining and Yorktown have sparked a chain reaction in Westchester County. Since 2001, the number of area high schools with science research programs has doubled. The number of students entering the annual Westchester competition for science research has quintupled.

Each year, the two schools welcome visitors from outside school districts who want to know the secret to their success.

"We had no idea it was going to catch fire like this," said Angelo Piccirillo, founder of the Ossining research program.

Ossining's program started in a closet-sized room on the high school's second floor, with a teacher who admits he had no idea what he was getting into. Piccirillo took a minicourse on science research programs, made possible by a grant, then a summer course the following year.

In 1998, he started a program with just three students. They all dropped out, he notes. Now there are 87 students, two full-time teachers and one always piping-hot coffeepot.

Sitting around a table in the new science research room (which is only slightly bigger than a closet), four of the school's five Siemens Competition honorees for 2012 attributed their success to their teachers and mentors -- professional scientists who agree to give them lab space and assistance for their projects.

"They treat us like graduate students," Khalid said.

For the teachers, there is no clear end to the school day, the week or the school year. Blueglass requires his students to check in with him once a week in the summer as their research progresses.

"The success of these kinds of programs is completely on the shoulders of the teachers in the trenches to help support and challenge their students," Blueglass said.

There's also the aspect of friendly competition, which drives programs throughout the county to improve each year. Piccirillo and Blueglass describe each other as friends, but also rivals.

"We're always striving to stay one step ahead of all the other programs," said Valerie Holmes, who teaches science research at Ossining. "It's good for Westchester. It's good for New York State."

The science research revolution has put the county on the map nationally. In this year's Siemens Competition, three of 96 regional finalists nationwide hailed from Westchester. In 2011, Ossining was neck and neck with Bronx Science, with eight Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists -- more than any other school in the country.

Piccirillo is amazed by the percolating effect the district's success has had throughout the community and county. Parents also have noticed that the level of competition rises every year.

"I'm really impressed. Since I've been judging, the number of entries has increased tremendously as well as the level of work they do and the level of understanding," said Dr. Reena Mohindra, a judge and parent of one of Yorktown High School's successful science research students, Priya Mohindra.

The research teachers lauded parents and school administrators for supporting the programs. Both programs have full-time research teachers -- in fact, Ossining has two. While other Hudson Valley schools have science research programs, few others are afforded the same resources as these Westchester schools. In other counties, science research is an after-school club or only one of several science courses a teacher juggles. Those kind of programs simply can't compete consistently on a national level, Blueglass said.

Of course, amazing students play a big part. Students sacrifice nights, weekends and summers for their research. Priya Mohindra, a 2011 Siemens finalist, spent two full summers, 11 hours each day, traveling to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for her research. She woke up at 7 a.m. to get on a bus to the Metro-North train, then rode the subway toward Memorial and finally walked four blocks. Every morning, every evening, her mother said.

"I didn't expect her to even do this or to think about doing it," Reena Mohindra said. She credited her daughter's teacher and mentors for motivating her.

Ossining's McQuaid spent his summer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He will travel this weekend to Pittsburgh as a regional finalist in the Siemens Competition. Winners of the regional competitions will be announced Monday.

"All of us spend a lot of time independently working on our papers," McQuaid said. "We stay late a lot. We do a lot of work."

Some students win awards. All develop skills that last a lifetime, Blueglass said.

"We have students all over the nation pursuing science," Holmes said.

Westchester 2012 regional finalists, Siemens Competition:

• Daniel McQuaid, Ossining High School, Ossining

• Jiayi Peng, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua

• David Hamann, Yorktown High School, Yorktown Heights

• Westchester 2012 Semifinalists in the Siemens Competition

• Edward Aryee, Ossining High School, Ossining

• Sania Khalid, Ossining High School, Ossining

• Haris Nair, Hastings High School, Hastings-on-Hudson

• Amrita Ramesh, Ossining High School, Ossining

• Juliet Strauss, Mamaroneck High School, Mamaroneck

• Henry Tareque, Ossining High School, Ossining

• Tanvi Tiwari, Yorktown High School, Yorktown Heights

• Sasha Zemsky, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua

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