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High School Research

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #93, 2010.

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Jeannette Webb

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 track record.

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.

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