On July 18, 2016, at 2:22 a.m., Andy Bramante’s cellphone buzzed with an incoming text. He rolled over in his bed, pulled his phone close to his face, and saw a message from Shobhita Sundaram.
“Heyy—guess who’s a regional finalist for Google science fair??!” read the little text bubble.
Squinting down at his phone, Andy tapped out a reply. “Yaaaaaayyyy!!!! So happy for ya!”
Shobhi had spent her sophomore year in Andy’s science research class at Greenwich High School building an algorithm that could help predict which breast cancer drugs would be most effective in killing tumors. She’d taught herself to code in middle school and was also a masterful public speaker, a crucial weapon in the science fair world. Between the knockout algorithm and her impressive ability to tout it, Andy thought Shobhita—aka Shobhi, the Shobhinator, and Shobhi-Wan Kenobi—was poised to floor the judges at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair (CSEF), the gateway to Intel ISEF, the mother of all science fairs. So it had seemed a shocking oversight of sorts when she failed to place at CSEF back in March. It had also infuriated Shobhi’s mother, who’d wanted to send a scathing email to the judges.
Now, as he read the text that Shobhi was a regional finalist for the Google Science Fair, where thousands of kids from all over the world submitted a slew of ambitious projects, everything from fighting drought with fruit to detecting lung cancer with a breath test, a sense of redemption washed over Andy. He was thrilled that Shobhi got her due.
He fell back to sleep, but less than an hour later, his phone buzzed again. The 3:10 a.m. message was from William Yin, a rising senior and one of the most astounding kids Andy had ever had in his class.
“Hi Mr. B.,” read the first text bubble.
The second said, “Shobi [sic] and I are GSF regional finalists!”
Ah, William. This was not so much a big surprise to Andy as continued validation for William’s invention. He’d developed a blueprint for a Band-Aid-like sticker that could be applied to the neck to detect the presence of atherosclerosis, the plaque that can break off, form a clot, and kill you with a heart attack or stroke. The Google accolade was the latest glittery float in a seemingly endless parade of William’s victories for his sticker.
Andy tapped out a congratulatory reply that involved a lot of exclamation points, trying to make his delight register through his foggy haze. William would always be one of Andy’s most beloved, if crazy-making, students. There was a deep connection between the two, one born of brutally long days in the lab and the process of trying to work through the enigma that was William. But now Andy just wanted to get some shut-eye. He set his phone down on his night table, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
When he finally woke up for good that day, Andy texted back and forth to get some more reaction from the kids about the news. Shobhi was especially giddy. The night before, she’d set her alarm to wake up at two a.m. Eastern time, when Google released the names. Shobhi figured if she wasn’t among this first cut of winners, she could just return to bed and sleep off her disappointment, rather than get up at a normal hour, learn she hadn’t advanced, and spend her whole day being dogged by it.
Bleary-eyed, she woke up from her phone’s alarm, opened her laptop, and logged on to the Google Science Fair site. And there on the page announcing the one hundred regional finalists were her photo and project. (Her region being the Americas.) The sixteen global finalists would be named in August. Shobhi texted Andy that her parents were “soo happy” and “I was too . . . once my heart rate had gone back to normal. I swear I got a heart attack when I saw my face on the page.”
For the second year in a row, there was just one school and one teacher in the world with two Google regional finalists: Greenwich High and Andy Bramante.
Andy’s science research class is unlike any other class at Greenwich High, a Connecticut public school behemoth with 2,650 kids. There is no curriculum, tests, textbooks, or lectures. Students pitch individual projects that they work on throughout the entire school year with the goal of taking their discoveries and inventions out on the national and global science fair circuit. This is not the stuff of vinegar volcanoes and ant farms. Kids tackle problems like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, heart disease, cheap water filtration, and carbon dioxide capture, sometimes making discoveries that elude adult scientists three times their age.
Andy Bramante arrived at GHS in 2005 as a chemistry teacher and picked up the research program the following year. In the years since, he has turned the program into a juggernaut, amassing one of the most impressive track records in America when it comes to kids competing in the science fair world. Year after year, his kids dominate the fair circuit and take home prizes in unprecedented numbers—all of which is particularly impressive because Andy is far from a career educator. He walked away from a successful run as a scientist in corporate America to teach high school.
The stakes of everything that happens in Andy’s science research class seem to rise exponentially here in Greenwich, population 62,000, a beautiful seaside town that borders New York State and offers sweeping views of the Long Island Sound. It’s a town beset with competition, even beyond the usual suburban jostling for bigger houses, better cars, and sterling children. But beneath the readily apparent affluence, Greenwich is a multifaceted place—and a lot more diverse than you might think. At Greenwich High School, 21 percent of the student body is Hispanic, 9 percent is Asian, and 4 percent is African American. Greenwich also has considerable populations of immigrants and expatriates; GHS is home to kids from sixty-one countries. Twenty percent speak a language other than English at home.
Andy’s class fully embodies this diversity and spans the poles of Greenwich privilege. He’s had a student whose family spent thousands of dollars to outfit a custom lab in their basement, as well as a kid to whom he offered a sweater, thinking he could use what for Andy was a holiday castoff. He regularly has students from families for whom money is so abundant, it’s an afterthought. By contrast, he teaches kids who live so far outside the money bubble, their families rent modest condos because purchasing a home in this town—the median home price is $1 million—is nowhere within reach. One year, a kid asked for an extension to pay the initial $150 project fee because he was covering it from his after-school job earnings. And when it’s become apparent that a kid’s family can’t pay for some of the extras, Andy finds a way to pick up the costs without ever mentioning it to the student.
The common thread among all these families—the multigenerational Greenwich establishment as well as the new immigrants who live (figuratively and literally) far from the country clubs, rowing clubs, polo grounds, and lush estates—is that they want their children to get a superior education and have chosen Greenwich for this reason. But in so doing, they have entered into a uniquely competitive culture of achievement—one that plays out in Andy’s class.
The science fairs hold a powerful draw for Andy’s students. For starters, there is prestige attached to even getting accepted to compete in a fair, where kids display sleek posters and give daunting oral presentations about their work. They stand in crowded, buzzing auditoriums, dressed up like mini adults (jackets and ties for boys, pumps and skirts or dresses for girls), fielding a barrage of questions from judges, as if defending a dissertation. The entire experience brute-forces them into a solo public performance where they expound on the intricacies of their projects, every word their own, propelled forward by the culmination of their hours in the lab, hard work, frustration, and, finally, show-worthy results.
The fair experience is arguably one of the best facsimiles for an adult high-pressure situation, made more so because many competitions ban parents and teachers from the actual arena. So there are no supportive glances, open arms, and big hugs—or meddling. This isn’t like being on the debate team, which has the rah-rah aspect to it. Or being in a school play, where even if you fumble, someone else steps forward to fill the silence. No, these kids must demonstrate total mastery over their complex inventions and the underlying science. They have to describe in detail, say, the construction of a tiny polymer vessel loaded with cancer drugs and metallic particles that is guided directly through the bloodstream to a tumor by a handheld magnet over the skin. (That was an invention by one of Andy’s star veteran students.) And the science fair format can be a harsh about-face from Greenwich child-rearing culture, where, as one teacher put it, “every parent thinks their child is a special flower.” The judges don’t fan the flames of ego or puff the kids up. They take critical aim at their work, to insure the competitors both know the content and were actually the ones who produced it.
In some of the entry-level fairs, the prizes are quaint: $25 Amazon gift cards or free museum admission. But as kids ascend through the fair circuit, they often vie for large sums of money—particularly in the über-elite contests where Andy’s kids compete—with individual payouts as high as $250,000, or the equivalent of a free ride to college.
And beyond the money is the brief but bright light of fame they enjoy—going on late-night television, giving TED talks, getting invited to the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm. In all of these venues, they are cast as whiz kids, special beings whose intellects belie their ages.
Andy is constantly besieged with snickers and commentary about how nice it must be to teach in such a cushy town—the implication being that the affluence gilds the road to science fair victory. The eye roll at the mention of Greenwich is one thing, but the suggestion that Greenwich’s wealth is the reason for his kids’ success is infuriating to Andy. There is never a shortage of encounters with people who imagine he has carte blanche to buy whatever his kids need, that he is coated in monetary pixie dust, and that his competitive edge stems from a phalanx of kids with plump piggy banks.
The reality: for the science research program of roughly fifty kids, Greenwich High School’s science department allots Andy a grand total of $1,200 per year.
The news about Shobhi and William was a welcome start to Andy’s vacation. He had just begun to settle into the rhythm of summer, which for him always presented a crisis of sorts. Andy was many things, but idle wasn’t one of them. The insane pace, hours, and agony that he devoted to his kids throughout the year kept him at his natural stasis. He thrived on the craziness. So the arrival of summer didn’t see Andy sitting in a beach chair with a beer cozy and a magazine. Instead, he paced about like a freshly released animal that didn’t know it was free to roam beyond the confines of its cage. The freedom felt like a death grip, especially that first week without kids and his manic amounts of tasks.
But by July 16, he’d reached a relative state of relaxation. He managed to log a beach day or two. He’d just splurged on a 2014 BMW F 800 GT motorcycle, which he’d been coveting for years. The bike was a fun and useful purchase because it provided a whole new dimension for one of Andy’s favorite pastimes: tinkering. He had an entire side business devoted to it, where he repaired and calibrated the kind of scientific instruments he’d worked with during his corporate life.
Since he was never capable of total detachment during the summer break, he spent a sizable portion of his mental energy thinking about what lay ahead, going over his roster of students, making minor predictions about how their year in the class might take shape.
The demand for Andy’s science research class was such that he made students apply for the roughly fifty spots. Every year he had to turn kids away, and over time, Andy had gotten better at the filtering process. He now puzzled over Romano Orlando, a junior who’d produced the single worst project proposal he’d ever received, an odd treatise about the need to make Greenwich High School green. It was Andy’s custom to jot notes to himself on the pitches as he worked through the stack. Romano’s was such a head-scratching combination of bad and weird, Andy just scribbled question marks at the top. And yet he decided to accept Romano, largely on the basis of a recommendation from the kid’s Honors Chemistry teacher.
There was Danny Slate, the charming, brilliant, and good-natured kid whose junior year project resulted in total collapse for a variety of reasons. Andy couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d be utterly disappointed if Danny, whose senior year would mark his third with Andy, exited the class without having completed a substantive project. In the spring, following the implosion of Danny’s attempt to link a biomarker called NAMPT to an increased risk of colon cancer, Andy and Danny read a scientific paper that suggested portobello mushrooms cooked at extremely high temperatures could generate battery power. The project appealed to Danny, an amateur chef as well as a budding science mind. He liked the novel aspect of it: mushrooms plucked from the produce section and cooked into batteries.
William was coming back, and Andy was eager to see if his star student would pursue a brand-new project, something few seniors did. William’s sister, Verna, would be in the class. Verna was a kitten of a kid, a shy sophomore with braces and smiling, bright eyes that revealed much more than Verna was willing to say out loud.
Also returning would be Olivia Hallisey, another of Andy’s most winning students. Olivia had become somewhat of a teen celebrity after her big score at the 2015 Google Science Fair, where she won the Grand Prize, collecting $50,000 in scholarship money and a nifty trophy made out of LEGO blocks, a nod to one of the major competition sponsors, for a cheap and novel Ebola test she’d invented. Olivia was part of the Hallisey family science research dynasty that was launched by her two older brothers, Will and Blake. The youngest Hallisey, Charlotte, was a freshman and Andy had heard that she might petition to join research.
Copyright © 2018 by Heather Won Tesoriero. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.