Cathy Messenger has long understood that the best way to teach kids science is to show them what the discipline's complicated formulas and physics are good for.

So when the Los Gatos High School chemistry teacher heard there was private grant money available to launch the sort of advanced research class that she'd been thinking about for years, she jumped at it. Now she presides over a classroom of 21 students working on everything from sending water samples to space to reversing benzene contamination of soil with phanerochaete chrysosporium.

Yes, phanerochaete chrysosporium.

"You learn the content and it means something," Messenger says of her class where students were recently typing on laptops, mixing solutions and discussing findings with each other. "It's about the experience. When do you retain information the most? When you've learned something that you have to immediately put to use."

I first heard from Messenger about her Advanced Science Research class last summer. I had just written about the Google (GOOG) Science Fair and said that I intended to write more columns about ideas that can help spark students' interest in science, technology, engineering and math. It turns out that Sabera Talukder, one of the Google finalists, had taken Messenger's class last year, the first year she offered it.


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Messenger told me that Talukder came up with a low-cost way to purify water in developing countries when Talukder's passion and curiosity intersected with the mentoring and resources provided in the advanced research class. And it all made so much sense to me. Silicon Valley employers and educators for years have been worrying about where the next generation of technologists is coming from. Students -- especially girls -- seem to fall away from math, science and technical fields in middle school and high school. By college, the brightest are headed for business, finance, Wall Street and the big bucks.

But maybe a high school course in which kids think for themselves, push themselves and confront real-world problems, is the sort of thing that can flip a switch.

"I feel just so lucky to have this class," says Talukder, 16, who's back this year working on prototypes of her purification system, which she hopes to deploy in Bangladesh this winter. "It's given me a sense of purpose: How can I affect and how can I change the world?"

And as Talukder struggles with raising money to build her prototypes, it's given her a real-world lesson on how difficult it can be to bring about change.

Teacher Cathy Messenger helps Justin Bryan log chemicals that will be used in his science project in the Advanced Science Research class at Los Gatos High
Teacher Cathy Messenger helps Justin Bryan log chemicals that will be used in his science project in the Advanced Science Research class at Los Gatos High School on Thursday. Messenger found private funding to keep ASR classes going for the next five years. (Gary Reyes/Staff)

"Actually, I found out that the hardest thing about science is not the research," she says. "It's implementing it."

The research class seems like a no-brainer, but in a world where standardize tests rule and school budgets are stretched to the breaking point, such elective classes are something of a luxury. The work Messenger's students are doing doesn't directly line up with test questions. And projects that involve growing plants on the ocean's surface, testing the toxicity of cadmium chloride and analyzing water's properties in microgravity cost money.

Messenger, a biochemist who worked for years in medical diagnostics research, is resourceful. She's recruited her husband, an electrical engineer, and another parent, who is a mechanical engineer, to help mentor students. The grant she landed provides funding for up to three more years, including $5,000 a year for supplies. (It also comes with the condition that the donor remain anonymous.) And Messenger has joined with Valley Christian Schools on a project to send a team experiment to the International Space Station in March.

It's a shame that innovative programs like Messenger's are so random and so fragile. Teachers and schools need to get lucky; to find a grant here, a volunteer mentor there. And when the current grant expires, Messenger isn't quite sure how she will pay to continue the class.

"It's always been my passion," she says of the research-based class. "It's part of why I became a teacher."

And clearly the passion is contagious. In Messenger's class one recent afternoon, students talked about the practical implications of their research. Andrea Kibel, a junior, is exploring the idea of growing food on the oceans' surface. She says she was inspired by similar projects launched on inland lakes.

"There is so much ocean surface available compared to fresh water," she says.

Sophomore Eugenia Huang has embraced the independent nature of the research class. A few weeks into the school year, she switched her focus from pyrolysis (heating biowaste to create fuel) to working on benzene with phanerochaete chrysosporium, a white fungus. The fuel idea, she explains, would have required purchasing a $12,000 furnace or building one that would burn at 800 degrees.

"We were just afraid that it would blow up," she says.

But the discovery by doing, or even discovering what you can't yet do, is part of the joy of science -- a joy that seems to be warmly embraced by the researchers in Cathy Messenger's classroom.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.