NOTE: Patch will feature a new Teacher Spotlight from Amity School District every month, focusing on teachers who challenge students and make a difference.
When it comes to the science education students receive in her classroom, Amity High School teacher Deborah Day doesn't believe in boundaries.
"It could be engineering. It could be the physical sciences. It could be medicine, psychology, the behavioral sciences," she says. Students who participate in her Science Research Program get to shape the direction of their learning along any conceivable interest in the sciences. No lectures -- students work through their progress at their own pace, bouncing ideas back and forth. There's only one caveat.
"We're talking graduate-level research done at the high school level … We're looking at global problems."
Cancer research. Nanotechnology. Alternative energy. Work that produced two finalists for the Intel Science Talent Search, one of America's most prestigious high schools science competitions, in just a few years. It's no surprise Day is this year's Amity Teacher of the Year -- her students' work spans disciplines, and she asks only for high-quality research.
"That's the fun of it - jumping between interests," she says. "They actually happen to all be interests of mine. That makes it seamless for me. I'm attracted to novelty and cutting-edge anything. I don't have to be the expert, but I'm knowledgeable enough to know - I can detect inconsistencies and see where a project's going."
Students in Day's class choose mentors -- specialists in their field or members of the community -- for their projects. Day says connecting with the community is an added bonus of her brand of high school science research.
"I certainly couldn't be a teacher of the year without the community," she says. Parents, teachers, superintendent John Brady, and Science Department head Estelle Fanucci have supported her, and she hopes she can give back.
"It's so few and far between we get to actually express that," she says. "We see parents at Parents' Night or Welcome Back Night, at symposiums and science fairs. They're always generous and kind, but there's never enough time to tell them how important they are … It goes beyond the walls. It all comes together."
Day says she's "still in shock" after being honored as Teacher of the Year in May.
"It's a humbling experience to feel as if others appreciate your work at that level. I never thought my ultimate goal was to be Teacher of the Year - I say, just do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."
Her students have given back to her as well. Former student and Intel finalist Zizi Yu, now attending Yale, praised Day in a later to the Teacher of the Year selection committee.
"Her love for science is nothing short of infectious," Yu wrote, "and she is always looking for ways to spread that passion to her students and her community … Because of her, I see opportunities for intellectual exploration everywhere, and I have realized just how exciting and fun science can be."
Looking forward, Day hopes to push the boundaries of innovation -- and community -- as the class keeps growing.
"It's important to get across to students," she says, "You're looking for things that were previously established. You're looking at the void in the space between ideas. That's the wonderful thing about innovators and being innovative. You work with people that are so gifted or insightful. And being … immersed in an environment that's rich and supportive of thinking outside the box ... They have opportunities they wouldn't get just by the traditional types of classrooms. This constructivism model -- being immersed outside the classroom in real-life situations -- could be a new paradigm for education. Maybe it's a new model."