Teaching Science through Research in Middle and High School

Kelly Salmon teaching.
Kelly Salmon teaching.

There is a consensus that a hands-on approach to teaching science helps students learn better.1,2 But how much do teaching labs reflect what scientists do every day? Many teaching labs have recipe-like directions with a known output. This is great for teaching methods and concepts, and fits well into class time. Students can, however, distinguish “school science” of rote experiments from real science where the results are unknown.3,4 Authentic science engages students by not using a recipe, forcing them to plan, think critically, and analyze data in a way that many instructional labs do not. Students find unexpected hurdles and learn that results are sometimes not as expected, but find themselves inspired because they have learned persistence, critical thinking, and the truth that answers in science always produce more questions. A retrospective study found students exposed to scientific research in high school are more likely to have and keep a STEM career than those who do not experience research until college.5

As the Senior Scientist for the New Hampshire Academy of Science (NHAS), I manage a STEM lab that operates solely for middle and high school students and teachers. The NHAS is a nonprofit state academy affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). We support all facets of STEM, although many of our projects have been in biology (thankfully, for this cell biologist). In summer and after-school programs, we enable students to explore novel research questions, guiding them through literature searches to formulate testable hypotheses, experimental design, data analysis, and presentation of results.

A Lab with a Twist
Our lab is run like a graduate research lab with a twist. Because students pursue individual interests, the range of topics became quite broad. As the program has grown, we have started establishing topic areas with available projects both to help students focus and to help us keep up as mentors. Since each project is unique in its techniques and hurdles, it can be difficult to assess progress (like grad school). Students take a multiple-choice quiz upon entering and leaving the program to assess competence in statistics, equipment, unit measurements, etc., so we can get a sense of knowledge gained, and surveys gather information about how we can improve. We track students through school and help them prepare for their next steps.

As expected, projects undertaken by sixth graders are simpler and more observational than projects pursued by high schoolers. All students go through initial safety, instrument, and ethics training. Communication and collaboration are also emphasized. We start most days with a roundtable lab meeting to discuss progress and troubles. Our lab has a hierarchy of experience seen in many research labs that enables newer students to learn from those who have used techniques before and the experienced students to reinforce their knowledge by teaching.

At the end of each research program, students present findings to their peers and a panel of local experts. Any student who makes substantial progress in his or her work submits a summary paper for NHAS peer review. If approved, students can submit an abstract for the AAAS annual meeting. There, students present posters, are inducted into the Junior Academy, and are introduced to the wider scientific community. Peer review, presentations, and publications (even at the level of an AAAS abstract) are milestones. We focus on the scientific merit of the experimental process, even if the result is negative. This is another valuable lesson that research instills: You will sometimes fail. It is how you continue on that is important.

Training Teachers, Too
Last year, we piloted a program to train local teachers to bring this type of science education to their institutions. Teachers got a crash course in research techniques and the types of questions those techniques could answer. Afterwards, they returned to their school as research mentors with ongoing equipment and scientific support from the NHAS. This produced independent study programs at two high schools and a lab program at a museum. The teachers have reached out to local experts for additional support and we started a database of mentors for students and teachers. Going forward, we will provide teachers with a project that they can take with them (like postdocs leaving a lab).

The shift from recipe-based teaching to true experiment-based science is not easy. Even in the best of circumstances and with robust support, research is challenging. It asks more of teachers than we already ask, both time-wise and intellectually. Teachers must move from their comfort zones as distributors of knowledge to become collaborators in the scientific process.6,7 It requires access to equipment and extensive background knowledge and/or the advice of STEM professionals to ensure projects are attainable.

The NHAS’s guiding light is the understanding that students should be encouraged in their curiosity and know how to pursue questions in a scientific manner, whether they intend to go to college or not, and whether they intend to pursue STEM or not. Though we do want more people in STEM careers, it is also important that all citizens are scientifically literate, thinking critically and seeking out factual sources. Regardless of his or her career path, every person should be trained as a scientist, and hands-on research is the way to make that happen.

1National Research Council (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
2National Research Council (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
3Archer L et al. (2010). “Doing” science versus “being” a scientist: Examining 10/11-year-old schoolchildren’s constructions of science through the lens of identity. Science Education, 94, 617–639.
4Zhai J, Jocz JA, Tan A-L (2014). “Am I like a scientist?” Primary children’s image of doing science in school. International Journal of Science Education 36, 553–576.
5Roberts LF, Wassersug RJ (2009). Does doing scientific research in high school correlate with students staying in science? A half-century retrospective study. Research in Science Education, 39, 251–256.
6Anderson RD (2002). Reforming science teaching: What research says about inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 13, 1–12.
7Crawford BA (2007). Learning to teach science as inquiry in the rough and tumble of practice. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 44, 613–642.

About the Author:

Kelly Salmon is Senior Scientist for the New Hampshire Academy of Science.