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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

In fact, it's the sheer volume of equipment, special orders and unusual construction demands that pushed the price tag to $13 million. The building well exceeds seismic standards.

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But it's not all high-tech wizardry. There's also a personal feel to the center. Everyone closely associated with the project, which opened this semester and took only 14 months to complete, added a touch.

Teachers, who designed their own classrooms, created custom-built lab tables with eight-inch-deep drawers to hold tall glassware; Munger himself added a bronze bust of Benjamin Franklin; school staff had the whole complex shifted five feet farther into the hillside to preserve a 50-year-old tree with 80 more years to live.

As geology teacher Wendy Van Norden simply put it: "It's luxurious."

And both the facility and the extraordinary largess that made it possible are the envy of educators across the country.

"This certainly puts them in a league with only about a dozen other independent schools in the country," said James T. Kaull, director of business and development services for the National Assn. of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C. "There aren't many that receive gifts in that amount. It's wonderful news."

Other private schools that have received multimillion-dollar gifts include the Peddie School in New Jersey, which was given $100 million by Walter Annenberg, a school graduate; Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, which received more than $20 million from the Hutchins family of Maine and a $10-million gift from Paul Mellon; and the McCallie School in Tennessee, which received $25 million in cash and stock from Ted Turner, a school graduate.

"This is a huge community with a huge amount of talent," said Munger, whose own children attended Harvard-Westlake. "It would be malpractice . . . not to give them the best facilities in which to learn."

The school has a long history. Harvard School for Boys opened as a military school with 42 students in 1900 at the corner of Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. It moved to the Coldwater Canyon campus in 1937.

Harvard merged in 1991 with Westlake School for Girls, established in 1904 across the street from MacArthur Park. That school moved to Bel-Air in 1927, and now houses grades seven through nine.

When the two schools merged, in fact, the trustees and school administrators developed a master plan for capital improvements. First on the list was a parking structure, but the science center--No. 2 on the list--stole the spotlight.

"We decided to turn our attention toward items of greater educational necessity," said Hudnut, the headmaster. "We felt that this building could be the centerpiece--the showcase--that could tie the campus together both architecturally and intellectually."

And it has.

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The center, with its wide, outdoor corridors and promenade linking the rest of campus, is a gathering place, a focal point of the high school. It also has the best view of football games--perched on a hillside overlooking the field and the Coldwater Canyon hills.

Ask the students about their new science facilities and the answer is unanimous. "There are so many more things we can do," said Brooke Wilcher, a junior. "Before it felt like any other classroom. This is a lot more hands-on . . . it feels a lot more like a lab."

But while applauding Harvard-Westlake for boosting its science program, educators elsewhere lament the lack of money for science in public schools.

"I only wish there was a way to make this resource available to science-interested kids from other parts of the area," said Malcom, from the Assn. for the Advancement of Science. "Having access to this kind of equipment is going to give these kids [at Harvard-Westlake] a cutting-edge experience."

Even at the LAUSD's showcase science schools--the Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in East Los Angeles and Van Nuys High School's Math/Science Magnet--administrators and teachers say they desperately need the basics: updated science textbooks, test tubes, chemicals.

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Before joining Harvard-Westlake, science teacher Shockley-Gray spent $5,000 of her own money to build and stock a saltwater aquarium at Taft High School in Woodland Hills that pales in comparison to the one she works with at Harvard-Westlake.

But even without the Taj Mahal of science centers, some Los Angeles schools are graduating top-achieving science students. The Van Nuys students, in fact, won the highly competitive National Science Bowl contest last spring.

"I'm working with less in terms of funding but certainly not less in terms of talent," said Art Altshiller, who teaches science at Van Nuys High and who coached the winning team. "But I have 35 and 39 kids in honors physics and not enough equipment . . . so my experiments are more demonstration-oriented and paper-oriented."

But in the Munger Science Center, students rarely share materials, spending more time on their own experiments and less time in lectures. Chemicals and other materials are readily available, kept in specially designed cabinets and stored in a spacious teachers' prep area complete with refrigerators, dishwashers and ice machines. Even a darkroom.

Lectures no longer have to be interrupted to borrow a videocassette recorder--every classroom is fully equipped with VCRs and television sets.

Students receive individual tutoring in the teachers' office--a large, airy room set up with 13 desks, computers and printers shared by the science department faculty. Students frequently are found discussing assignments and work with their teacher in the office, rather than in a classroom.

Said Feulner, as he looked around the office: "Do we have the ability to accomplish more" than other schools? "Absolutely."

But can they find a cure for cancer? "Not yet," he said, smiling.

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