In the early 1980’s, I was an undergraduate conducting social research
with one of my professors. We were breaking new ground, as research at
that time was reserved for graduate students. Other professors didn’t
know quite what to expect when I presented our results at conferences.
How times change! Today we routinely hear of high school students
conducting research and many college websites actively promote their
undergraduate research opportunities. Some colleges even give specific
scholarships to entering students who have already developed a research
Why the transformation? I think there are basically two reasons. The
first, according to one university administrator, is that colleges are
having to work overtime to recruit and retain students in math, science,
and engineering. It has become necessary in the last 8–10 years for
higher education to provide incentives to enter these tough fields.
Hopefully, they can catch the student’s interest early and then hold it
with intriguing projects.
Secondly, we live in a time when there are more research opportunities
available than ever before. Basically, there is more research to do as
scientists continue to open new areas of exploration and make new
discoveries. There is more commercial interest as our standard of
living continues to escalate. By the age of 16, students will have the
lion’s share of their raw intellectual ability and are often capable of
making a worthwhile contribution to their field of interest. Maturity
and opportunity are the only things that will hold them back.
I need to be clear that the concept of conducting high school science
and math research is only for a narrow range of students. This is not
something most parents need to frantically grasp to add to every child’s
resume. There are basically two types of kids that should consider high
school research. The first is those whose curiosity is so intense that
they will pursue their questions or die. The second category contains
students with strong quantitative abilities who want to explore career
fields or need experience in order to pinpoint their interests.
The first types are the Thomas Edisons of the world, building labs in
playhouses and constantly asking questions. These are the students who
have a compelling need to observe their world, perhaps spending hours in
the back yard watching the life of spiders. With this type of child we
need to just get out of the way and provide them with the books and
equipment they need to explore their questions. We need to protect
large quantities of time for them to think and explore (and resist the
urge to fill every waking moment with activities that children are
supposed to do). We must be willing to help them contact specialists,
professors, or others who can help them. Perhaps a mentoring
relationship will develop out of these contacts.
One young man of our acquaintance lived close to a private research lab
that routinely offered community lectures. After attending a lecture of
particular interest, this young high school student approached the
speaker with questions. The scientist recommended several books, which
the student went home and devoured. Then he contacted the gentleman
again with further questions. He was offered a summer internship at the
institution and was later offered the opportunity to participate in the
research of the group.
My son knew that he wanted to work as a scientific researcher as a
career, but took a rather roundabout route finding what he loved. At the
age of ten he started doing experiments and learning how to handle
equipment with his mentor in a college chemistry lab. He liked
chemistry, but it was physics that had captured his imagination.
Fortunately, his mentor could discuss this topic with him as well.
Later, as a high school sophomore, he became very comfortable with
biology and was successful in his application to the Research Science
Institute. He knew that physics and math were his true love, but he did
not have the background yet to conduct research in those areas, so he
applied as a biology researcher. He spent an intense six weeks
conducting neurobiology research, the results of which propelled him to
National Semi-finalist positions in both the Siemens Westinghouse
Competition and the Intel Science Talent Search as well as helping
secure research scholarships at several major universities.
While the specific lab skills he developed at RSI were not transferable
to later projects, he got priceless experience with scientific writing,
not to mention learning to perform under intense pressure. It confirmed
that he wanted to spend his life in research and that he wanted to
attend a rigorous, research-oriented college.
My daughter fell in the second category of having great quantitative
skills, but no strong compulsion for a particular field of study or
career. After the age of 15, she came into her own in math and science,
showing strong logical skills and a delight in problem solving. She took
AP Biology as a high school sophomore and aced the class. She was
particularly interested in the molecular biology section of her class
and thought she might be interested in a career in biology.
Through a family friend, she secured an interview with a genetics
professor at our local university. When he saw her interest, he allowed
her to spend one day a week throughout the summer in his lab learning
techniques. When she proved that she was responsible and careful, she
was soon entrusted with expensive equipment and given a mini-project
under the auspices of his research in biochemistry.
That summer taught her many things: that she loved problem solving, that
she had the fine motor skills needed to operate delicate lab equipment,
and that she didn’t really want to spend her life waiting for organisms
to grow in a Petri dish. A summer investment saved an expensive college
education pursing the wrong thing.
For the inquisitive student, research can be a life-line. Gifted kids
often out-pace their peers and get bored in regular science classes. The
opportunity to delve into the mysteries of the universe can provide the
incentive to keep learning and growing. Many students who do not perform
well in a traditional classroom thrive on the individual pace of the
research lab. There they are measured by their ability, not by their
test-taking skill. They have a chance of making a lasting contribution
to their field.
High school research can help our students identify their broad fields
of interest and perhaps select a potential major and consequently a
collage. Undergraduate research during college can give students further
chances to explore fields that are perhaps outside of their specialty.
This can be invaluable when they need to cooperate with other scientists
in a joint project. It can also give college students an idea of the
specialization they want to pursue in graduate school. As colleges and
graduate schools get more and more selective, research can give these
types of students a marked advantage over the competition.
Please remember, research isn’t for everyone or even for most people.
But if you have one of those special children who are driven by their
questions, it behooves you to carve out a very different lifestyle for
them. Protect their time and help them find the resources they need. A
great scientific discovery may be just around the corner!
Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years
helping them develop public speaking, leadership, and interview skills,
as well as prepare effective scholarship applications. As Oklahoma State
University’s first Truman Scholar (the American equivalent of the Rhodes
Scholar), she went on to receive a B.S. in Human Development and an M.S.
in Family Economics. She spent a decade with the OSU Cooperative
Extension Service as 4–H and Youth Development Specialist and Resource
Management Specialist before she became a home educator in 1993. A
former OCHEC Trustee, she has also been a support group leader and
conference speaker. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar
Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through
High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping
homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges, including her
own two homeschool graduates, who are now attending top colleges. She
can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.