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‘The Class’ Review: Science-Fair Confidential

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by JOHN DONVAN

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‘The Class’ Review: Science-Fair Confidential

A year spent with a group of driven, talented students at a Connecticut high school—and the “life-changing” teacher who believed in them. John Donvan reviews “The Class” by Heather Won Tesoriero.

Certain areas of science may be enduring new onslaughts of disrespect lately, but at least one scientific institution—the high-school science fair—is acquiring a certain degree of cool. September, for example, saw the release of “Science Fair,” an acclaimed documentary film that follows a nail-biting competition for a $75,000 Intel-sponsored prize. The students in the documentary, who are as combative as they are creative, obliterate (mostly) the stereotype of socially awkward science-fair eggheads.

Furthering this narrative is Heather Won Tesoriero’s “The Class: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America,” the first full-length book on the science-fair universe. For an entire school year, Ms. Tesoriero followed a single group of students from a public high school in the affluent town of Greenwich, Conn. A half dozen of these students get most of the spotlight, but we meet many other important characters along the way.

Incorporating such a large cast into a navigable narrative is no easy task, but Ms. Tesoriero makes it work. She introduces us to Romano, who quit the football team because he was tired of his coach’s abuse—“the biggest mistake of your life” was the coach’s parting shot the day Romano walked away. We also meet William, a gifted classical musician and the son of Chinese immigrants, who in four years completed 20 Advanced Placement exams while getting straight As in all 10 classes he took during his junior year. There’s Sophia, a shy freshman whose stamina is challenged by Lyme disease—“as if her head were encased in a sinister grip”—and Olivia, a competitive swimmer and a supremely confident public speaker.

The students in “The Class” are further distinguished by the projects they pursue. One wants to make a mushroom-based battery. Another aims to devise a liquid bandage that solidifies upon application. Sophia wants to enhance the performance of antibiotics used against Lyme disease. Olivia, as the book begins, has already won accolades (and money) for creating a cheap diagnostic test for Ebola that doesn’t require refrigeration, a critical advantage in Africa.

These students don’t play out as types. With access to their conversations, emails and text messages, Ms. Tesoriero discovers a disparate set of impulses compelling them to put in the heavy hours of reading and experimentation necessary to win a science fair. These motives range from curiosity and natural competitiveness to altruism and altruism’s frequent flip side: hubris. Some of these students know they’re the smartest in the class. Not accepting the challenge isn’t an option.

And then there’s the drive for college admission. For all of them, being able to put a science-fair victory on their college applications is a significant motivator. One poignant passage in the book has William surrounded by his family when the early decision from Harvard arrives. He has been deferred. Ms. Tesoriero describes the scene: “shock, bewilderment, and sadness, eyes that are at once a scream and a cry,” and puzzlement at how “this destructive meteor landed in their backyard.” But worry not for William. Today, he attends Stanford. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of his classmates in the science-fair program are now at colleges and universities of similar caliber—including four at Harvard.

“The Class” reveals that, for all the hype of the science fair, these bright high schoolers aren’t creating world-changing breakthroughs. Olivia’s Ebola test, for whatever reason, isn’t the standard used in Africa today. Nor is pure research part of a winning strategy. Instead, prizes tend to go to projects that dazzle by “solving” newsmaking problems—with solutions often based on existing devices or discoveries, cobbled together in some ingenious way.

But science always builds on what’s already known, and ingenuity is a talent to be recognized and nurtured. In that, the students in “The Class” are lucky to have Andy Bramante in their corner. A former industrial chemist, Mr. Bramante quit the private sector to run the science-research classroom at Greenwich High. He works hard, cares about the kids and actually listens to them. He’s the “life-changing teacher” of the book’s subtitle.

Together, the elements in this book could have produced the standard “super teacher” storyline, but Ms. Tesoriero, an Emmy-winning former journalist for CBS and this newspaper, delivers something much better: a complex portrait of the ups and downs of teaching in a culture that undervalues what teaching delivers. Mr. Bramante, in her account, is both filled with joy from his work with the students and candidly resentful about being underpaid and feeling, at times, disrespected. He shares with Ms. Tesoriero his exasperation with overprivileged parents who insist on special treatment for their children, and who insinuate that he is to blame when their children don’t win top honors. He complains bitterly about the school administrator who ducks his request for a modest raise by suggesting he call the district office to make the plea himself; indignant, Mr. Bramante refuses “to grovel for four thousand dollars.” He is hurt when a Yale professor, impressed by one of Mr. Bramante’s students, turns to the teacher—who worked hard to arrange the meeting—and asks, “Why are you here?” It’s a jaw-dropping moment. By the book’s end, Mr. Bramante is wondering whether it’s past time to find a different job.

Such portrayals add rich texture to the book. Even the foibles of an extremely privileged community such as Greenwich, ripe for cheap shots, aren’t overplayed. Yes, some of those parents are truly a teacher’s nightmare, but “The Class” leaves one believing that their lucky children—lucky in intellectual inheritance, and lucky in the opportunities they’ve been provided—may still be cool as grown-ups. And maybe they will do something good in, and with, science.

Mr. Donvan is the co-author, with Caren Zucker, of “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.”