"I'm actually a late bloomer in terms of science research," says Stephanie Hon. For the past year, Hon has studied the effects of intracerebroventricular passive immunization on the deposition of beta-amyloid. Translation: She's trying to reverse the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. Her colleague, Elizabeth Cook, has researched stem cells in hopes of treating heart and liver conditions. Another associate, Ben Brinkopf, is developing neural networks to predict patterns in the stock market.
Late bloomer, perhaps, for your average Canterbury School student. Hon is 17, Cook is 18, and Brinkopf, a mere 16. They're Puma-sneaker-wearing students at Canterbury, a private K-12 school in Fort Myers, Florida, which, over the past 20 years, has produced an unrivaled five winners of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the biggest pre-college competition for science in the world.
Politicians fret that American kids are lagging in science. Well, maybe that's because "many adults put boundaries on children. They'll say, 'No, you don't have these prerequisites, you can't do this until you have this and this,' " says Betsy Glass, a biology teacher who created Canterbury's extracurricular science program in 1979 and still runs it. But "when children are interested, they should have access to wherever they want to go."
Glass treats each participant — there are 32 this year, out of 206 high-school students — as an "independent researcher." Students extensively research their subjects, making sure they're not replicating existing work. Then they develop hypotheses and protocols and hit the labs. Since Canterbury doesn't have the equipment for cutting-edge research, Glass cold-calls prestigious scientists to hook students up with labs at the likes of Harvard, MIT, and NASA.
Of course, by the time Canterbury students reach high school, science is not exactly new territory. "From the very beginning, with the 4-year-olds, we don't go after yes-and-no answers," says Cherie Gluhm, who heads Canterbury's lower school. Third graders participate in in-house science fairs, and by the following year, kids are learning to develop scientific protocols and to present their findings at science competitions.
Sure enough, Canterbury alumni have made advancements across the scientific spectrum. Elizabeth Ambrose Amin, a 1983 graduate, developed and patented anticancer and antirheumatic drugs in 2001. While getting his PhD at Berkeley, 1994 grad Todd Mintz produced data that nuclear power plants can now use to prevent leaks.
Eden Haverfield, who won the Intel fair in 1994 and 1995 and developed the first heme-gene (which might be used for artificial blood), says Glass has forever shaped her approach to work. Glass is known to wade through ponds to harvest plants for projects and pull all-nighters driving kids to far-flung university labs. "The initial response is just to accept a failure and stop at that," says Haverfield, who recently completed her PhD in genetics at Oxford. "That's not [Glass's] philosophy. You just have to push harder and be more determined."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.