A Teacher and His
Richard Plass of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan has never done research more sophisticated than raising guppies with his sons. Yet he has turned out 202 Westinghouse semifinalists, nurturing more successful research projects than probably any other teacher in the United States.
It is not a mastery of biology that accounts for this extraordinary record. Even his comments on papers that are being readied for the Westinghouse betray a lack of any exceptional expertise. "Go, go, go," says the spidery scrawl on the title page of one paper. "I couldn't find anything to critique," says another.
"The kids in Stuyvesant are beyond me," he confesses. "I'm a biology teacher, not a biologist."
Plass's secret is an age-old one. He simply loves teaching, loves working with kids. "I'm a plain old guy," he told me, as we spoke in his crowded cubby of an office in the winter of 1992 while he munched on an apple—his lunch for that day. "I like being with lots of kids, doing lots of different things. All a kid has to say is I want to do research, period. We don't ask them what their grades are, what their backgrounds are. You want to do it, you got it."
Plass is both an impassioned teacher and something of a salesman, a Willy Loman who pitches salvation through science projects on a smile and a shoeshine. The more customers he can win over the merrier he is. While other teachers will take a handful of projects or even a dozen, Plass will take sixty, seventy, eighty. He can't say no, and whenever a student will come asking to do a project