FINALIST YEAR: 1990
HER FINALIST PROJECT: A survey of how teenagers think about their relationships with their parents
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: As a student at The Bronx High School of Science in New York City in the late 1980's Laura Ascenzi-Moreno noticed something about her extremely bright friends. Whereas some felt close to their parents, others spent adolescence in a constant state of rebellion that undermined their ability to learn. She wondered why. Did different parenting styles have something to do with it? To answer that question, she devised a questionnaire on what adolescents thought of their parents' authority.
The result? "Children who defined their parents' authority as sort of eclectic—not too authoritarian, and not too lenient—identified most with their parents," she says. None of her 300-plus survey subjects wanted mom and dad to be drill sergeants, but they didn't feel particularly secure when mom and dad tried to be their best friends, either. Intrigued, Ascenzi-Moreno entered the results in the 1990 Westinghouse Science Talent Search (STS). She placed seventh.
THE EFFECT ON HER CAREER: With her STS placement, Ascenzi-Moreno had found her life's work. Her study "was very basic, but at that point it was an introduction for me to be doing social science research, developing a survey, and figuring out how to analyze it." She went to Swarthmore College, then earned a master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, eventually landing at The Cypress Hills Community School, a Spanish-English language-immersion school in Brooklyn, N.Y. She taught kindergarten through second grade for seven years, and then became an education coach at the same school.
WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: Eighteen years after becoming a Westinghouse finalist, Ascenzi-Moreno is still studying what affects student learning. At Cypress Hills, she is charged with helping teachers implement research-based strategies in their classrooms. For instance, research shows that children acquire language skills quite readily through peer-to-peer interaction. So Ascenzi-Moreno might work with a first grade teacher to pair up children who need to work on complementary areas of English and Spanish acquisition for group work during a unit on, say, weather. Cypress Hills teachers are currently developing strategies for evaluating student math portfolios, and for designing assessments that test English-language learners' content knowledge, rather than their language skills.
The result of this rigor is a school that—despite its low-income, immigrant student demographic—features a lot less teacher burnout than it otherwise might have. "In a time when too often teachers are expected to unquestioningly follow a prefabricated curriculum, Laura has always helped educators to blaze our own path, inspired by the research of experts in the field," says Jennifer Franks Ahaghotu, a Cypress Hill second grade teacher. "She has helped me realize that teaching is an intellectual journey and that one can use research to both learn new techniques and support practices with evidence."