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A Science Teacher's Dream in Studio City : Education: New $13-million center gives students at Harvard-Westlake School top-notch, hands-on lessons.

December 24, 1995|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STUDIO CITY — Randi Shockley-Gray's classroom is bigger than her house.

The 1,700-square-foot biology lab at the private Harvard-Westlake School is the science teacher's dream--from its sheer size to the extraordinary amenities. Two huge saltwater aquariums line one wall, filled with perch, a Dover sole, shrimp, a baby octopus and a halibut. All were collected by her biology students on a research trip. Elsewhere, the latest computer software projects microscopic images on a large screen, while organisms also are examined through high-powered microscopes furnished to every student.

"I can't believe I'm lucky enough to teach here," Shockley-Gray said.

Lucky indeed. At the Munger Science Center, Harvard-Westlake's pulsing new science headquarters, no expense was spared to build what could be the premier high school science department in the nation. The cost: $13 million.

That's enough to build a suburban elementary school and just a little less than a recent award given to the Los Angeles Unified School District to beef up its training for science and math teachers. The $15-million National Science Foundation grant was for the entire 640,000-student Los Angeles school system.

At Harvard-Westlake, however, faculty and administrators were able to work with gifts from a dozen donors, led by school trustee and Los Angeles attorney-turned-businessman Charles Munger.

They decided to create a high-tech center based on ideas from the best facilities in the country. Yet, although teachers from the exclusive Studio City school scoured science labs from Washington state to New Jersey, they found nothing that matched their vision.

So the faculty, along with the trustees and the architect Ki Suh Park--whose own children graduated from the school--designed their version of a top-of-the-line science department. Munger gave about $7.5 million; a dozen other school trustees, including Jane Eisner, wife of Disney chief Michael Eisner, and singer Neil Diamond, contributed the rest.

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The result is two commanding California-contemporary taupe and teal buildings, linked by a bridge and veranda, containing 12 classroom-laboratories fully stocked for geology, physics, oceanography, invertebrate zoology, even a sound and acoustics course. All in 40,000 square feet, roughly the size of a college football field--including both end zones.

The price tag for furnishings and equipment alone totaled $1.7 million, including $175,000 for new scales, microscopes and spectrometers. A scanning electron microscope ran $55,000.

The project has left some people in the field in disbelief.

"Usually that kind of money goes for some fancy-dancy weight machine or two swimming pools and a handball court," said Shirley Malcom, director of education for the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. "I do find it rather breathtaking."

One manufacturer, listening in growing disbelief to the school's shopping list of equipment, said to science department head John Feulner: "Wait a minute, this is for a high school?"

Well, yes, but this isn't just any high school. With only 803 high school students, Harvard-Westlake is one of the top private high schools in California, charging $12,000 for annual tuition and relying on donations and income from a $15-million endowment.

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With a history of high-achieving science students, Harvard-Westlake believes it needs to keep pace with changing technology--and with science education in general.

"Our approach to science in this school is hands-on, laboratory-intensive and that necessitates first-class facilities," said Tom Hudnut, the school headmaster.

While Harvard-Westlake students still dissect fetal pigs, they also use microscopes to examine living organisms such as sea urchins and sponges from Shockley-Gray's aquarium. They analyze data by hooking up their calculators to brand-new computers and they conduct chemical experiments under glass-encased fume hoods.

Every classroom is fully equipped with $23,000 worth of audiovisual equipment, allowing teachers to project both textbook pictures and tiny images to aid lectures. CD-ROMs are used to illustrate complex concepts; one teacher uses them to describe plate tectonics to a geology class.

The list goes on and on. The science department has its own computer lab--fast machines that can easily turn raw data into research reports. The lecture hall has computer hookups at every seat so students can take notes directly into laptops. Sound insulation alone cost $16,000.

Additionally, every classroom is connected to its own water, gas and electrical supply so if one room loses its heat or lights others won't be affected.

To be sure, some of the equipment can be found in public schools. But while a public school lab might have a few microscopes, at Harvard-Westlake, every student has one--the latest models. Classrooms were designed--and equipment purchased--for 24 students each, even though classes typically don't even reach 20.

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