How a Science Research Program Taught Students to Pursue Futures Fueled by Passion
When Antonio was 16, he had bugs in his basement. While this sounds like a reason to call the exterminator, it was actually planned. Antonio’s mother had been in touch with his science teacher and was brave enough to allow her son to hatch praying mantis eggs in their basement as part of his research.
Antonio was just one of the memorable students in my first science research class at Christ the King Regional High School, a parochial school in Queens, New York. Projects like this were not uncommon in the early years of developing our authentic-learning science program in the mid-nineties.
At the time, our school had a reputation for high standards, but its instructional model was very cookie cutter. Science classes were lecture-based with occasional labs, and each course culminated in a statewide Regents Exam.
By 1996 I had already been teaching earth science for 20 years. I enjoyed my work, but I was searching for something that would have more a lasting impact on my students’ lives. I knew that I was teaching valuable learning skills and preparing students to become informed citizens, but was I really helping them see science as a possible career path?
Then I attended a six-hour workshop that radically changed my approach to teaching. At that workshop, I was introduced to a model that involved developing a 3-year program, a version of which I later adopted at my school.
Beginning in 10th grade, students would be taken through a process that would help them choose their own personal topic of interest. There would be a focus on research, writing and oral presentation skills. Students would have opportunities to develop collaboration and sharing skills throughout the program. In 11th grade students would develop their own unique experiment and carry it out with a mentor in their field of interest. In 12th grade students would write a formal research paper and use their findings to enter numerous competitions, including the most prestigious of all at that time, the Intel Talent Search. (This competition is still in existence today as the Regeneron Science Talent Search.) If they put in the requisite number of hours during the three years and summers, they could earn 12 college credits for their work.
It was an ambitious and daunting task. How could all of this fit in to a student’s scheduled day? I decided we would use the before-school zero period. At 7 a.m. each morning a group of the most motivated students I have ever worked with would come together to work on their research. While many teenagers were just getting out of bed, these students would listen to presentations given by their peers and provide critical feedback on both the scientific methods used and their oral presentation skills. They would help each other with research techniques and fill out competition applications together.
Every two weeks I would conference with each student individually to learn about how their research was progressing. We would work on organizational skills and plan out next steps. We would identify mentors, people in the scientific community who would be willing to answer questions and hopefully guide the experiments of these budding scientists. That was probably the most difficult task in this development process. Christ the King was known for its wonderful athletic program, not its science program, so it was almost impossible to procure mentors. We didn’t have the pedigree of Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech. We still had to prove that we could compete with the big-name science schools in New York.
We persisted. After six years the results showed a program that had grown from eight students to 36. Our high school students had become experts in their field of interest, and had developed a broad range of research skills, like developing hypotheses and reading dense texts, as well as organizational and public speaking skills. They critiqued the work and presentations of their classmates with a positive approach and a level of maturity that belied their young ages.
My 15-year-old students had the confidence to email and call some of the top scientists in the country to ask questions about what they had read and seek advice for their own experiments. They competed alongside the top science students in New York City and walked away with their share of awards. They presented their work with the community at an annual symposium that became more impressive each year.
Did all of the students pursue science as a career? Of course not, but many found a career path that they didn’t even know existed before they embarked on this journey.
They left this program with the ability to figure out what they were interested in because they had already experienced that process. They had actively participated in an instructional model that encouraged them to pursue projects fueled by their passions.
Now well into their thirties, many of my former students have kept in touch via social media. Antonio, the praying mantis hatcher (aka “bug boy”), now works as a forensic scientist. Gretchen, who researched the effect of urban sounds on coyotes, is now a zoo keeper at the same zoo where she conducted her research and experiment almost 20 years ago. Lenny, an Intel semi-finalist who launched rockets in a park and built a robot in his bedroom, is a technical staff member at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory where he provides analysis to the U.S. government to develop and maintain the national Ballistic Missile Defense System. Gina, who studied the genetic and environmental factors involved in forensic psychology, works at Cornell University focusing on chromosomal abnormalities and genetic testing and counseling.
Even the students who did not continue in scientific fields use what they learned in their professions. One student, Kelly, has contacted me several times to inform me that she was learning about institutional review boards and how to record data in graduate courses she was taking for her master’s degree in education—something she reminded me I taught her in 10th grade. Jennifer has written to me about how she uses what she learned in our science research program to motivate her math students. She recalled being challenged to do things she did not think she could do and pushing herself to succeed.
This was a learning experience for me as well. I was in the middle of my career as an educator, but I learned valuable lessons about going beyond delivering a curriculum. I learned how to understand each learner so that I could teach them more than facts. I wanted to teach them not only how to learn, but how each of them learned individually.
As I look toward the end of my career in education, which has spanned over four decades, it’s clear that the crux of my journey lies in the personal relationships I forged with students and the positive impact those relationships may have had on their lives and careers.
It’s also pretty symbolic that as I’m about to retire, education researchers, journalists and politicians are buzzing about personalized learning. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not new. It’s what good educators have done for a long time—or at least since the nineties.