Science is a process, a way of looking at the world. It is not simply a body of facts. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand science without doing science. For this reason lab experience in the sciences is essential. In college a lab class is roughly 2.5 to 3.0 hours per week with about the same time for lecture. Lab work is very time intensive. Having taught high school for 14 years I understand how difficult it is to develop meaningful lab activities with the restrictions of : (a) time, (b) facilities, and (c) manpower. Many experiments just don’t fit into a fifty minute period and don’t keep well from day to day. Secondly most high schools do not have adequate facilities to do meaningful lab work. Lastly, the high school teacher seldom has help to prepare experiments and to get the facilities ready while teaching all day long. As a result experiments must be few, short, and usually very "cookbook", thus losing the real meaning of the scientific method.
As a result I encouraged my high school students to do independent research work on a topic of their choosing but approved by me. The projects could be broken into three categories:
These projects were accomplished in three settings: (a) at school, (b) at the student’s home, and (c) at an industry or academic facility.
In addition to developing an understanding of the scientific method, there are several other important reasons to consider encouraging this program:
Incentives and payoffs
I have used course extra-credit to provide some reward and incentive for doing an out-of-class project of this type. I gave up to 10% of the points available each six weeks as extra credit; this usually amounted to an increase of 1 letter grade in their six weeks average. Students were required to keep a bound notebook and document their time spent and results of library searches and lab experiments. I met regularly with the student to discuss progress. At the end of the six weeks period, I graded the notebook and assigned extra credit points.
Another benefit of project work was that most students improved their in-class test scores because they were reinforcing class material as well as seeing practical uses for it. As a result of increased test scores and the extra-credit, the grades and self-concepts of students increased dramatically. Many students changed their career plans as a result of their work. It definitely increased the chances of pursuing advanced research degrees in a particular scientific field. Students for the first time saw that they could do this type of work and felt the satisfaction and joy of it.
A final benefit occurs from possible awards that the student may receive. Science contests are well funded and provide many opportunities for summer work, college scholarships, cash, educational trips, and excellent additions to the college application. I encourage participation in the TN Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, TN Junior Academy of Science, the local and county science fairs, and the Middle TN Science and Engineering Fair.
The following is based on the year long schedule. The block schedule used at some schools makes the process more difficult.
1st Six Weeks
2nd Six Weeks
3rd Six Weeks
4th Six Weeks
5th Six Weeks
6th Six Weeks
My best experiences in my 14 years of high school teaching came from working with students on research projects. I heartily recommend your commitment to this program.
Ron Robertson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Austin Peay State University