- “The Effect of Insecticide on the Reproduction Rate of Cyclops.’'
- “The Effect of Acid Rain on the Reproduction of Paramecium bursaria.’'
- “The Effect of Iodine on the Metamorphosis of the Drosophila melanogaster.’'
- “The Effects of Caffeine on the Tenebrio molitor.’'
- “The Effect of Saccharin on Paramecium bursaria.’'
- “The Effect of Ultra-Violet Light on the Growth of the Slime Mold.’'
It is not a mastery of biology that accounts for this extraordinary record. Even his comments on papers that are being readied for the Westinghouse betray a lack of any exceptional expertise. “Go, go, go,” says the spidery scrawl on the title page of one paper. “I couldn’t find anything to critique,” says another.
“The kids in Stuyvesant are beyond me,” he confessed. “I’m a biology teacher, not a biologist.”
Plass’ secret is an age-old one. He simply loves teaching, loves working with kids. “I’m a plain old guy,” he told me, as we spoke in his cluttered cubby of an office in the winter of 1992 while he munched on an apple—his lunch for that day. “I like being with lots of kids, doing lots of different things. All a kid has to say is, `I want to do research,’ period. We don’t ask them what their grades are, what their backgrounds are. You want to do it, you got it.”
Plass is both an impassioned teacher and something of a salesman, a Willy Loman who pitches salvation through science projects on a smile and a shoeshine. The more customers he can win over, the merrier he is. While other teachers will take a handful of projects or even a dozen, Plass will take 60, 70, 80. He can’t say no, and whenever a student will come asking to do a project he will agree to play the angel, no matter how late in the game. Then, once the projects get off the ground, Plass makes himself available to a seemingly inexhaustible stream of students who come knocking at his office door, asking factual questions, requesting the use of his phone, offering him drafts to read, pleading that he intervene with a parent upset over late nights at the lab.
In a selective school like Stuyvesant—9,445 students took an admission test for 501 places in the September 1993 freshman class—Plass’ obsession can translate into a trove of prizes. And Plass is not the only ardent promoter of science research at Stuyvesant. Arnold Bellush and Albert Tarendash in the physical sciences and Richard Rothenberg in mathematics, along with an inspirational principal, Abraham Baumel, all help explain why Stuyvesant had four of the nation’s 40 winners in the 1992 Westinghouse and similar showings in many of the years prior.
Plass is a gray-haired man of 48 with glasses, a small Chaplinesque mustache, and a physique that shows no evidence of exercise. He is homespun enough to have chosen Queens College for a graduate degree so he could have dinner with his mother. He talks in a rapid-fire staccato that allows his listeners few opportunities for distraction. Describing him as busy is like describing Everest as tall.
Plass is not only a biology teacher, an assistant principal who chairs the biology department, a shepherd of three dozen or more Westinghouse submissions in any given year, but also periodically an executive of the New York City Biology Teachers Association. And he runs a summer camp for gifted students on Long Island, heads a summer research program for high school students in Pennsylvania, runs a business that sends American teachers to study and live in Russia, is a vice president of the Long Island University Alumni Association, and is the father of two sons. And in his spare time, he completed his doctorate in educational administration and supervision at St. John’s University. His thesis: The role of the department chairman as the functional leader in a school.
He is thus an uncommon role model for students who seem to thrive on work the way normal human beings thrive on oxygen. His example as a maelstrom of energy may partially explain why students such as Valerie Liu, a 1992 Westinghouse winner, have interests ranging from ice skating to piano playing and do them all so well.
“Powerful people do lots and lots of things,” Plass said.
Plass’ assignment to Stuyvesant is no small factor in his achievement. The school has the cream of New York City’s 270,000 public high school students; many educators contend that its student body is now superior to that of Bronx Science. That may be because Stuyvesant, in lower Manhattan, is more accessible to students in Brooklyn and Queens than Bronx Science, on the northern edge of the Bronx. The Bronx, poorer and more run-down than it was 20 years ago and with far more jobless people and immigrants, does not have the wealth of academically minded students it once had. Of course, Stuyvesant has had its own shortcomings. Until recently, when it acquired a new building in Manhattan’s Battery Park City, Stuyvesant was housed in a moldering Victorian fortress that had only one working biology laboratory. Its oak desks and storage cabinets were an antique collector’s dream, but it had no sophisticated equipment of any kind other than a dusty autoclave for sterilizing test tubes and an aged incubator that was used mostly for warming bagels.
But what Stuyvesant has always had is its proximity to two dozen of the nation’s finest scientific and medical research centers and access to a subway system that can easily transport students to those labs daily.
“Think of kids from L.A. going from School A to Lab B,” principal Baumel said. “It’s impossible within one day.”
More important, Stuyvesant has an ambience that treasures academic prowess. John Abraham, a 1992 winner, said the “mentality at other schools is to do average.” At Stuyvesant, 60 percent of the students have more than a 90 academic average.
“At other schools, you get classified as a geek or a nerd,” said Gary Gozali, a 1992 winner who transferred from private and prestigious Fieldston School to attend Stuyvesant. “Stuyvesant saved my life. It turned me into what I am today.”
Still, until Plass came, Stuyvesant was a perennial silver medalist in the Westinghouse to Bronx Science’s gold. Plass gave Stuyvesant a shot in the arm: He imported an award-winning system from another New York public high school, Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, where as a science teacher he had also churned out Westinghouse semifinalists. The simple secret of the system is immersion of students in research at a tender age. And the form it takes is a gimmick called “Creature Features.”
Seventy students in two classes of freshman research biology take four periods of research lab a week in addition to the normal complement of six classes of biology (two of which also bring students into a lab). Creature Features gives them some experiments to play with through the beginning of the year and some ideas for the year’s dominant project.
Plass’ objective is to show students how simple, inventive, and serendipitous research can be. Students start the year tinkering with a number of “creatures” from a list he has compiled of harmless and easily cultivated living things: paramecia, brine shrimp, the cyclops crustaceans, drosophila (fruit flies), Tenebrio molitor (meal worms), planaria (flat worms), slime molds, the easily observable red bacteria known as Serratia marcescens, beans, and pixie tomatoes. They learn about these organisms and their life cycles, they watch the creatures grow and, in some cases, metamorphose, and they perform some simple experiments. Then, toward the middle of the year, they pick a feature whose effects on the organism they will test. The feature can be a substance such as vitamin C, vitamin B12, saccharin, caffeine, sugar, amino acids, aspirin, monosodium glutamate, acetaminophen, or antibiotics. Or it can be a physical or environmental phenomenon such as temperature, light, ultraviolet radiation, magnetism, spin, pH, or electricity. The students design an experiment testing the effect of almost any substance or physical phenomenon on the list on almost any of the organisms. In principle, it’s no more difficult than mix and match, as this list of projects indicates:
- “The Effect of Insecticide on the Reproduction Rate of Cyclops.”
- “The Effect of Acid Rain on the Reproduction of Paramecium bursaria.”
- “The Effect of Iodine on the Metamorphosis of the Drosophila melanogaster.”
- “The Effects of Caffeine on the Tenebrio molitor.”
- “The Effect of Saccharin on Paramecium bursaria.”
- “The Effect of Ultra-Violet Light on the Growth of the Slime Mold.”
Over the years, Plass has determined which experiments will produce engaging results. That is why he likes the red bacteria Serratia marcescens. “Because it’s red, you can follow it and see what it does,” he said. “It turns white if you do this to it. It turns pink if you do that to it. It turns redder if you do that to it. You could put in a chemical. You put it into hot or cold. Anything you want to it. And it does something when you do something to it. So it’s a nice tool for experimentation.”
Fairly soon, the students in the research class are working on lengthy and distinctive experiments, studies in genetics or bacteriology for which regular biology students simply do not have time. Students must follow classic scientific form. There has to be a control group and a well-formed hypothesis. “We don’t just want to throw a chemical in in a shotgun approach and see what can happen,” he said. “You need to have a rationale. Because scientists have a rationale for what they do. They don’t just do experiments. There are reasons why they do experiments.”
The students do not work on their experiments entirely in isolation. The program Plass has designed and that other teachers also endorse immerses students in committees—paramecia committees, drosophila committees, psychology committees—where students trade their laboratory experiences.
All of this Plass does with a cheery enthusiasm that might fatigue more tranquil temperaments. Plass has a deep, if visceral, understanding of the allure and pleasures of research. In a booklet, predictably called Creature Features, that he published in 1980, which has been bought by science teachers around the country, he offers one of the most succinct descriptions of why research classes and programs such as the Westinghouse are so seductive to students: You will find variations in reproductive patterns, mutations, growth, and many times life and death itself. You will witness binary fission, color changes, bursting cell membranes, conjugations, mitosis, colony formation, root hair growth, mating fruit flies, twoheaded worms, size and shape abnormalities, metamorphosis, antibiosis, and other serendipities beyond your imagination.
You will learn how to make solutions; culture and feed many diverse creatures; use dozens of laboratory devices; do statistical analysis; gain access to large research libraries; write to and speak to famous research scientists; attend meetings and lectures at colleges; organize term papers; and present yourself and your project to peers and adults.
You will be the mother and father to organisms that might depend upon you and only you for their very lives. That is an awesome responsibility even though they might be very small and not very consequential in the greater scheme of things.
You will learn about yourself and your ability to do independent work out of the classroom. You will get sudden flashes of insight, invent shortcuts, design new techniques, and most exciting of all, perhaps be the only person in the entire world to ever observe some peculiar event happening on your microscope slide. This always happens, by the way, when the lab is empty and there is no one about to share the experience with. It will be the most brilliant, self-satisfying, and mature experience that will ever happen to you. You will walk through your school proud of yourself, with a secret you cannot explain to “ordinary” students because you are not sure they could really understand or appreciate the extraordinary concentration, dedication, and determination you have undergone.
Your student science research instructor, though, will break out into a gigantic Cheshire cat grin and simply say, “Where do we go from here?”
Following Plass’ blueprint, students finish off the second term by composing a report on their experiments, complete with an abstract, a review of the prior literature, a hypothesis, results, graphs and photographs, and conclusions. Students also give oral presentations of five to six minutes, combined with a graphic or a slide show. These techniques prepare students for the presentations they will have to make in the Westinghouse and, for those contemplating professional careers, at scientific conferences.
Because psychology experiments have become increasingly popular at science fairs—and with the Westinghouse—Plass also has students in the spring work on a host of experiments involving relatively simple matters such as facial expressions, eye contact, and word memorization.
The sophomore year offers a similar honors research program in chemistry. Then in the junior year, students can choose a “Junior Research Class,” sometimes called the Westinghouse class, which pairs them with professional scientists in working laboratories. Plass offers a class in biology, and there are also junior research classes in physics and chemistry, mathematics and psychology. Not surprisingly, there is a lively competition by teachers for the best students.
As at Bronx Science, students under Plass’ guidance are asked, as a test of their maturity, to find their own mentors in the host of hospitals and universities with which New York City is blessed—at labs in Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, Cornell Medical Center, New York University Medical Center, Rockefeller University, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Public Health Research Institute, St. John’s University, and others.
Plass advises the students only on how to start the process rolling, how to dress for the initial interview, how to bypass a departmental secretary. (The solution to the last challenge: Call the school’s graduate admission office and, without explicitly posing as an applicant, ask for names and personal telephone numbers of professors working in an area of interest.) The name Stuyvesant opens up a lot of doors, and many institutions welcome the chance to cultivate future scientists who may end up one day coming to work for them. A recent Rockefeller University publication contained a feature on the high school students it has guided. Entitled “Combatting the Scientific Brain Drain,” it offered this rationale for the program:
Attracting the best and the brightest youngsters into careers in science has become a high priority for the nation, faced with declining numbers of scientists graduating from our universities, confronted by rising numbers of faculty vacancies created by retirements and the “brain drain” of scientists flocking to more lucrative industry jobs.
Some schools in New York, however, are notorious for not welcoming high school students, and Plass discourages students from even knocking on their doors. “The reputation of the school is dependent on how they treat people who walk into it,” he said. “If you don’t treat someone nice when they walk in, then they walk out saying that place is not nice.... Kids are wonderful that way. Kids read your face as you mechanically move your lips and read every emotion you have as an adult. If you give them a crinkly eye or a sigh, they know you’re in trouble. I have moods. And the kids, since they know me so well, they can tell when I’m uptight or busy in my head or something’s bothering me. So when they walk into a university, they know they’re not being treated nicely.”
Plass will break his rule and make a connection for those who after six weeks fail to hook up with a laboratory. He has compiled a notebook of personal telephone extensions of helpful professors, just in case. He also tries to make sure students end up working on topics they enjoy, not just ones for which a researcher is available. He urges students to focus on a broad topic area that engages them—genetics, AIDS, molecular chemistry—and tells them to leave the narrow research topic to the mentor. “I don’t want someone to do chemistry for two years and not like chemistry,” he said.
The junior research classes are open to anyone, even students who were not trained in research as freshmen. “I take on as many ideas as I can handle,” Plass said. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming. But I can’t say no to a kid. I feel it has to be done.”
In 1992, Plass started out with 60 students, but the publicity about the four Stuyvesant winners led 30 more students to plead with him to take them on, as well. And he did. He cannot say no, particularly to those who started with him in freshman biology, the ones he calls his “babies.” He also handles an additional 60 seniors who are finishing up their Westinghouses and writing papers. And he continues to teach a single section of research biology. “I need to be with children in a classroom setting,” he said. “That’s my personal need to be a teacher.” His total load, he said, is typical of teachers like Bellush, Rothenberg, and Tarendash. All, Plass said, are regularly at school by 7 a.m.
The junior research class meets formally only once a week, as a seminar. But soon students are spending roughly six hours a week at hospital and university laboratories. Plass makes it seem that the secret to Stuyvesant’s success is really the much-maligned New York City subway.
“We’re in a unique situation,” Plass said. “A kid in Huntington [on Long Island] who wants to go out to Brookhaven [National Laboratory] or Cold Spring Harbor [the famed genetics laboratory] or Adelphi or Hofstra—you can’t get there from here without a car, without someone in the afternoon driving.”
For four periods a week, Plass sits in his office waiting for students to ask him questions. “And they show up,” he said, a statement proven by the dozen or so students who knock at his door during our two-hour interview. “They come in, use the phone, call the professor, read my paper, all day long.”
Plass tells his students at the start that no one can fail, but if they want a grade in the course, they must submit not only a final Westinghouse paper but also a progress report in the fall and a more thorough one in the spring, which he will read during the summer and mail back. Three-quarters of the students who start the program in September will start work toward their Westinghouse paper by January. Others manage to start as late as the spring, but about an eighth, he said, “realize they can’t do it.”
“They must spend two or three days after school; that’s six hours a week. That keeps them away from their homework. If they’re at Mt. Sinai [in upper Manhattan] and they live in Queens, it’s tough. They get home in the dark, late at night. They can’t join some of the clubs. They’re really dedicating a lot of time and effort on one project.”
Those who persist into the senior year spend one afternoon a week after school meeting with Plass and honing the paper. “I don’t teach kids how to do research,” he said. “I teach them how to write a paper. I’m as anal as I could possibly be on paper-writing. I want an absolutely perfect paper.” While he may not fully comprehend the arcane area under investigation, he can, he said, “speak the language.”
“I can tell by looking at the gestalt if a kid is heading in the right direction,” he said.
Along the way he gets to know the students “very, very personally.” “It would be rare that I didn’t know a kid and their parents and what they do and their parents do. This boy Jerry brings me Chinese food ‘cause his father owns a restaurant in Long Island. This girl Wendy lives on Staten Island and travels for an hour by ferry boat. I just get to know the kids. I’m here at 6:30 in the morning.”
While the Westinghouse competition is intimately woven into the fabric of the Stuyvesant research program—the warp to its woof—the program’s purpose is not to win Westinghouses. Plass speaks with great fervor about why more of America’s high schools must start programs like the research classes at Stuyvesant. “These kids are learning how to work at a world-class facility,” Plass said. “These are scientists. These are kids who want science as a career. Chalk-and-talk is no good. Go out and do what science is. Science is doing things in an experimental form. We can’t do that here. So we put them out there to do it instead. They are learning how to be a young adult. Being mature, being responsible, dealing with brilliant adults. Keeping things alive. Using thousands of dollars of equipment and being responsible for that. Learning library skills, writing skills. Kids whose goal is to be a scientist, they’re writing scientific papers right now, at 17 years old. They have a skill built in as an ability that you’d have to wait until graduate school to be taught.”
Still, Plass said, it’s important for students to enter contests like the Westinghouse because competition is an inherent part of science. Scientists compete for publication in academic journals, Plass pointed out. “[If] they don’t get published, they might lose a job, they might not get promoted, they might not get recognition, they won’t have a following either in the literature or in the university. Those things are hard for scientists to have, very, very difficult in any financial climate. So these kids are entering their papers in contests, looking for recognition themselves.”
If Plass intuitively appreciates the desire of New York City children for recognition, for something that will distinguish them from the swarms of other urbanized children around them, it is perhaps because he lived a rather unremarkable New York City childhood. Plass was born in the southeast Bronx, a few blocks from the Hunts Point market. His father was a quality-control engineer in the electrical industry and his mother an administrator at Metropolitan Life Insurance. When he was 8 years old, Plass and his family moved to the then somewhat more rustic spaces of Flushing, settling into the Electchester Houses in Queens, a highrise development sponsored by the electrical unions. Young Plass went to the public schools there.
Although he passed the test for Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the three selective science-oriented public high schools in New York City, he decided to attend Jamaica High School in his Queens neighborhood.
“I had a girlfriend whom I met at Campbell Junior High School who was also interested in science, and we became very fast friends, and leaving her was a situation that even as a 9th grader I could not tolerate. And that’s what happened. I didn’t go to Tech. I went to Jamaica. Then that year Jamaica was very crowded, and they split the boys off from the girls and put us in Thomas Edison High School for a year. So I didn’t get to see her at all. We met like on a bus. That’s cruel and unusual punishment to do to a boy who made Brooklyn Tech. We dated for a long, long time. We didn’t marry, but we dated for seven years or so. We went to college, and I met my wife on the boardwalk at Rockaway one summer. We fell in love, and we’ve been married 20 years—but that’s a whole other story.”
His wife, Mickey, is a math teacher at Louis Armstrong Intermediate School, a school in Queens under the direct jurisdiction of the citywide schools chancellor rather than under one of the 32 community school boards, and one where teachers receive training from professors at Queens College. “A lot of her students wind up coming to me,” Plass said. “We went to a dermatologist a few weeks ago on Bell Boulevard. There’s a young lady behind the nursing tables, and she says, `Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Plass.’ The girl, Mindy, had my wife for math and me for bio here.” The Plasses have two sons: David, a graduate of MIT, who in 1993, at age 24, was a computer science engineer; and Robert, who at 22 was studying for two doctorates at the New York College of Optometry.
Plass knew in the 8th grade at Junior High School 218 that he wanted to be a teacher. “I had a couple of really truly inspiring science teachers,” he said. “They were wonderful, warm, time-giving teachers that were role models for me. I wanted to be a person like that. I wanted to be a teacher. So it was easy for me. Once you know you want to be a writer, you just write. Once you know you want to be a teacher, that’s your goal, and you don’t have to worry about other things that bother you in your life. I never changed my mind. I never regretted it, not a day of it.”
After graduating from Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus and receiving a master’s degree in science education at City College—his wife was there getting her degree—he found a job in 1966 at Grover Cleveland High School. He taught at the school, which is in a working-class section of Queens known as Ridgewood, for 16 years. For most of that time, his was more the career of a restless pedagogue than a man destined to be a mentor of scientists. He taught chemistry for nine years, biology for four years, and worked as the school’s dean for discipline, supervising the teachers patrolling the halls between classes and tracking and penalizing students who cut classes. “I get bored real quick doing things for a long time,” he said.
Plass was even asked to coordinate the program for gifted students. He remembers Principal Myron Liebrader telling him, “Your job is to prevent kids from going to Stuyvesant High School.”
“And I did that for a long time,” Plass said.
In 1976, a new biology chairman came in with some experience in teaching research, and he and Plass discussed the idea of starting an honors biology program for 9th and 10th graders where students would get double periods of science to work on laboratory experiments. “The rationale was the school had some gifted kids whose parents didn’t want them to travel outside the Ridgewood area to Manhattan, and we were losing kids to parochial schools,” Plass said. The principal leaped at the idea as a way of getting the school some limelight.
“You could enter kids into poetry contests, no one cares,” Plass said. “A speech contest, no one cares. Enter them into an essay contest, a spelling bee. But put them in a science fair, people like it. The New York Times shows up. I don’t know why that is. But if you’re doing science, you’re doing the top stuff. It may not be true, but everyone perceives it that way.”
Plass carefully selected the best junior high school students entering Grover Cleveland and assembled a group of comparatively easy experiments they could start on. Later, students began working on their own experiments—all inside the school’s labs. One year, he asked the seniors to write papers on how they went about doing research in their particular areas. Using some of their ideas and experiments, he composed Creature Features over a summer. He also started an in-school science fair that got students’ competitive feet wet. Once the research freshmen moved into the senior year, they began entering the Westinghouse. In his last four years at Cleveland, Plass’ fledgling research program produced 20 Westinghouse semifinalists and a finalist.
Plass’ impact at Grover Cleveland was sweetly captured in a letter he received in 1990 from Joanne Neglia, a student of his between 1979 and 1982 who had read a wire-service article about him, complete with a photograph, in The Orlando Sentinel in Florida. At Cleveland, she had done a project on the impact of acid rain on euglena, a green protozoan with a characteristic red pigment spot. It had qualified her as a semifinalist. She was now, she told him in her letter, an assistant to the manager of a Paine Weber branch in Orlando and was working on a novel. She enclosed a wedding picture of herself and her husband in the back seat of a limousine.
“Who would ever think this Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel would have an article that would take me back to the fondest memories of high school?” she wrote. “Mr. Plass, Westinghouse, our research papers, and all of it. (By the way, you look wonderful.) I’m glad to see you’re still inspiring others! Since students are too young to realize this, I’ll tell you now nine years later, Thank you for making us write such awesome papers. Thank you for making us compete, thank you for all the extra hours we needed to spend in the lab. It taught me that nothing is impossible, that we’re all creative, and that commitment plus sacrifice equals productive successful results!”
Although he revolutionized Cleveland’s science program, the restless Plass said he realized he “wasn’t doing enough for kids” as a plain teacher and so got a two-year degree in administration at night at Queens College, which then cost only $75 a credit. Armed with the administration degree, he looked around for a job as an assistant principal. There just happened to be a rare opening at Stuyvesant, and Plass had the right credentials.
“I got real lucky, quite frankly, when this came up,” he said. “I was the right age, and the right experience and the right time and the right background and the right publications.”
He was hired by the then-principal, Gaspar Fabricante, specifically to invigorate the school’s effort in research. “I was charged to do that. `When you come here, I want you to start a research program. I want to see awards. I want to see recognition.’ He told me that privately and personally in his office after I was appointed here. Bronx Science was flying, and we were doing nothing here. So when I got that charge it was wonderful. I was like a pig in mud.”
He began the biology research program with eleven kids in 1982. Now he is up to 90, and the whole school has caught research fever. In the 1992 Westinghouse competition, Stuyvesant’s students submitted 170 entries, a figure that was sure to net some winners. Indeed, 29 semifinalists and four winners were caught. (That was not as good as 1991, when Stuyvesant had six winners, but it proved better than 1993, when Stuyvesant’s trove was to dip to two.) As a result, the school’s fame has spread far beyond the city. Mikhail Leyb Sunitsky, who as a recent immigrant from Russia was a 1992 winner for a mathematics project, recalled that his mother heard about Stuyvesant in the Soviet Union. She made sure her son applied for Stuyvesant as soon as they reached these shores. Once ensconced in Stuyvesant in 1991, Mikhail led a U.S. team competing in the International Olympiad in Mathematics in Sweden. It turned out to be something of a reunion for him. “Most of the people on the Soviet team were my old friends,” he said.
Such tales, and the yearly tide of students lapping at Stuyvesant’s shores, have made Baumel, the school’s principal, and teachers at the school against-the-grain optimists about the future of science in America. Baumel feels that the United States is still pre-eminent in science research. That is why students from across the world still come here to do research, he said. America has an open system that prizes intellectual inquiry and confrontation while systems such as Japan’s tend to be more rigid and narrow. Baumel caps his argument by pointing out that much-vaunted Japan has won only a handful of Nobels. Yet he and some teachers also despair that Americans still prize football heroics over scientific strides. “The United States has been very uncomfortable with intellectual achievement,” said Albert Tarendash, a physics teacher who is a Stuyvesant graduate himself. “People are coming to the realization that it’s a necessity to have this kind of school.”
Plass has no time for this debate. Like a beaver setting up a home for his young, he keeps piling up logs and branches and twigs so his students, his babies, can do their scientific projects. He works every spare moment at school tracking the progress of each project on a computer disk, then moves his disk to an identical computer at home and works every spare moment there. His triumphs are mostly vicarious ones. “These kids are doing biology with me as if I was with them in the lab,” he said. But he savors it nonetheless. “It’s a lot of time and a lot of patience. A lot of things happening at the same time. I like a lot of things happening at the same time. I’m a kid myself.
“This is the best job in the country,” he said. “I’m really doing what I want to do. They always say that in a teacher’s lifetime if you reach one kid, that’s good. That’s baloney. I want to reach hundreds and hundreds of kids. I got hundreds and hundreds of the best kids in the country.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Sweet Inspiration