A Science Teacher's Simple Approach Racked Up $140,000 in National Prizes

"This is not science fair 101."

Andrew Bramante

An unusual number of kids with once-in-a-lifetime academic accolades trace back to Bronx-born high school teacher Andrew Bramante. In the 14 years he’s spent teaching high school since abandoning an industry job, he’s sent over 30 students to the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineer Fair alone.

In the 2016-2017 academic year — the most successful year yet — Bramante’s students racked up over $140,000 in monetary prizes, not to mention multiple scholarships and even a paid trip to India. The resume of his class at Greenwich High School in Connecticut reads as though it hides a secret recipe for winning science fairs.

He insists his process is no secret. Bramante, whose classroom is comprehensively profiled in The Class, strives to be the teacher he wishes he had as a child — not the kind who looked past him or gave him canned answers while complaining about kids not caring about science.

“You have to give them the freedom with the responsibility that they’re really going to find it in themselves to make it happen,” Bramante tells Inverse.

“This is not science fair 101,” says Bramante, who emphasizes that the skills his student learn outweigh any award a panel of judges can bestow.

Having ownership over these projects is essential to his process because of Bramante’s fundamental belief that people will work for the things they care about. His students are not all child geniuses, but perhaps they work even harder because of it. “There’s this initial blast when they’re fearful and they’re like, ‘I don’t even understand 20 percent of this’, but the trick is really to convince the kids they can do it,” says Bramante. “Combine that with the fresh outlook and imagination that doesn’t have the boundaries that come with adulthood.”

"He took a chance on me, which is something no other teacher would do.

Perhaps no student better illustrates the rewards of Bramante’s philosophy better than 16-year-old student Raina Jain, a champion at this year’s ISEF. After traveling to India and noticing how dangerous metals often permeate the water supply, Jain knew that something had to be done. But she also knew that costly detection systems weren’t accessible to the communities who need them most. Bramante, undeterred by Jain’s less-than-stellar science grades, challenged her to find her own solution.

Raina Jain presents her research at the Connecticut Junior Sciences and Humanities Symposium. 

Andrew Bramante

“I was actually in shock,” she says. “I got a C+ in biology and D+ on chemistry midterm and Mr. B knows that, but just because I have this passion for science, he took a chance on me, which is something no other teacher would do. Through this, I’ve learned more in this year of science research than I have in any other conventional science class combined.”

Hiba Hussain presents at the Connecticut STEM Fair. Her device takes advantage of NFC technology, and the app she built was her first foray into coding.

Andrew Bramante

Another one of Bramante’s students, an aspiring pediatrician named Hiba Hussain, changed the paradigm of diagnosing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, currently the fourth-largest killer worldwide, using hotel keycard technology and an app. A diagnosis can cost $1000 — not to mention the hassle of visiting the doctor’s office — but the 15-year-old’s solution analyzes a patient’s breath in mere minutes for only a few bucks, making it accessible to communities in need.

"You don’t have to spend 20-30 years in a lab and get the Ph.D. somebody thinks you deserve.

Both Jain and Hussain won their way around fairs in the region, and at ISEF in 2018, Raina took first place and best in category, while Hiba placed third in biomedical engineering.

Other students in Bramante’s class have tackled everything from the creation of sodium-ion batteries to the role of antibiotics on human microbiota. This is complex stuff — the kind of thing you’d normally see at the undergraduate level, at the earliest. At the core of their success is Mr. B.

Sure, he’s got a fortune of connections that accompany industry success and equipment that rivals university laboratories. But that’s not how he’s disrupting science education. He’s doing it simply, with the deeply rooted generosity of a mentor who shows care both in and outside the laboratory. His lab may not be scalable to every high school, but belief that the next generation can learn earnestly, without pretention, costs only time.

“You don’t have to spend 20-30 years in a lab and get the Ph.D. somebody thinks you deserve,” says Bramante.

"The highs that I feel and the coolness of it outweighs everything I've ever done. You can only get so excited about making a sale for a corporation." 

Andrew Bramante

How Mr. B Does It

Half a dozen high schools in Fairfield County boast research programs similar to Bramante’s, but the popular model takes a three-year commitment — one year to find a topic and write a proposal, the second to execute the experiment, and a third to write about it. Bramante believes high schoolers can learn and work at a far more rapid pace than that. Everyone else is just underestimating them.

“To me, that’s a lot of dead time, a lot of time playing chess on a PC,” says Bramante. He fits the whole process within one academic year, fueled by the belief that students, given support and ownership over their projects, will flourish.

"This is not science fair 101.

Of course, it helps to start with kids who are interested in science to begin with. Figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are valuable, says Bramante, “to the extent that that type of presentation of science can get kids engaged.” But where these media-centered educators open the door to science, Bramante ushers them through, straight into his unfathomably well-equipped lab (see: $250,000 electron microscope snagged from a former colleague).

After working on her research until “ten or 11 PM” for many nights, she succeeded in creating a low-cost detection method involving complex chemistry. She created magnetic nanoparticles that allow only certain wavelengths — colors — of light to pass through, depending on the concentration of contaminants in the water. Brown light, the Greenwich junior explains to Inverse, indicates one part per billion of arsenic, while yellow indicates two.

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