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A research course that motivates students

Marion Zeiner,Director of Scientific Research,Episcopal School of Jacksonville

Enthusiastic high school students drop by the science lab office throughout the day.  Some stay for just a couple of minutes and some stay for an hour or more. All of them are passionate about their independent scientific research on topics that include photovoltaics, phytoremediation, hypoxia, cancer cells  and piezoelectricity.  They share stories about work in a genetics lab, about the progress of cell proliferation, or about the images they obtained from a scanning electron microscope.  Phone calls are made to verify appointments with mentors, to check on availability of specimens, or to purchase specialized equipment.  These college prep students carry a normal class load with one exception.  They are enrolled in the Honors Science Seminar class, which takes them well out of their comfort zones and into the world of authentic scientific research.  There are no routine days for these research students. 

The reasons that students register for the research course varies, but the benefits for each student are the same.  Student-driven scientific research provides opportunities for students to experience the exciting world of science as inquiry.  Students explore complex scientific problems that interest them; they improve skills in lab techniques, communication, and critical thinking; and their self-confidence improves.  Students are on the path to lifelong learning, because they use science to grapple with problems that they care about (Linn, 2010).

Right after the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) were published I became convicted that the students in my school deserved the opportunity to engage in project-based science (PBS), which meets that standards for science as inquiry.  I was motivated to develop a course, but offering opportunities for field-based research at the high school level is difficult for two key reasons:  many teachers lack the skills, time, and knowledge to facilitate such a course and there is no room in the science curriculum for field-based research (Naujock, 2009). Reading journal articles, attending conferences, and visiting secondary schools with established research classes gave me a foundation of knowledge to build upon.  I traveled to every corner of the country, visiting schools and asking teachers, administrators and students dozens of questions.  They freely shared teaching tips, successes and failures.  What I learned verified the beliefs of Dewey and other progressive educators.  Children learn by doing in an environment that provides appropriate learning experiences (Dewey, 1902).

The Course Design:

A course description was developed that closely followed PBS instruction guidelines for educators (Colley, 2008).  At the beginning of the semester students attend lectures and field trips and read scientific journals, looking for topics that interest them. Once the topic is identified, students communicate with scientists to pose a testable question and develop the methodology of the project.  Students are strongly encouraged to directly communicate with the authors of the pertinent research articles.  Professional relationships are developed with mentors at research institutions, and students are taught essential laboratory techniques. Experimental trials in a research laboratory or at the high school are conducted over several months, and the mentors confer with the students to analyze the data and draw valid conclusions.  A paper and/or poster of the research is formally presented at the end of the semester and entered in regional, state, national and international science competitions.  They are also invited to present their work at meetings of scientific societies. 

Over the years, changes in procedures and an unwritten framework have strengthened the learning environment, providing a dynamic course that motivates students to design, conduct, and present outstanding authentic research.  As the teacher, it is my role to design a learning environment that fosters inquiry and supports creativity (Lehrer, R., Carpenter, S. Schauble, L. and Putz, A., 2000).  Students willingly and enthusiastically read entire books on highly technical topics; they travel hundreds of miles to meet researchers and visit research facilities; and they work in laboratories on the weekends, over holidays and during summer vacations.  They strive to develop novel research designs that will be recognized at state and international competitions.  No one tells them that they must work at that level.  Their motivation is internal and personal, but there is an underlying course structure that supports and encourages their motivation. 

The framework that supports and encourages internal motivation:


  1. The curriculum design of the research course is flexible to meet the actual needs of each student.  Although there are deadlines for forms, papers, notebooks and presentations, no two projects are on the same timetable.  One student could be completing the last year of a three-year investigation, while another student is looking for a project topic.  Each phase of the project - designing the investigation, arranging lab space, and conducting the investigation – could take weeks, months or more than a year.  Therefore, the deadlines are merely guides.  An attendance log (figure 1) is maintained in the office to keep track of students work. Students are given detailed guidelines for project components (figures 2, 3, 4 and 5), and they are encouraged to earn full points for every assignment. If work is not worthy of full credit, the students are expected to improve the work to earn back the lost points.  If mentors become too busy, specimens die, computers crash, or unknown bacteria appears, the students’ grades are not penalized.  The entire class learns that set-backs are a normal part of research. 

The flexibility of the curriculum allows the students to be in charge of their own learning.  They are in control of when they learn, what they learn   and with whom they learn, empowering them to be responsible and reliable learners.  Consequently, they have positive attitudes about science, a depth of scientific knowledge and a growing understanding of scientific ideas, which mee  the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996).

  1. Students explore science research in the real world.  At the beginning of the year, it is critical that students make contacts with potential mentors.  Local experts meet with students at school; and full-day trips to universities and medical centers are designed so that each student meets a researcher in their area of interest.  Students are encouraged to think well beyond the resources of our immediate community, and in recent years we have traveled as a class to Boston, Atlanta and Tallahassee.  Consequently, students confidently develop research partnerships with scientists at laboratories that have included the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Armor Holdings Ballistic Testing Facility and the Mayo Clinic.  The researchers are pleased to work with inquisitive and capable teenagers, and my students are honored to work in their labs.  In the end, the work done by the students is comparable to work done by graduate and post-doctoral students.  Furthermore, the students gain skills, technical knowledge and confidence that provide a strong foundation for college work and careers.
  2. Students write and display their research goals for the year.   In the fall of 2008 more than half of the 11 students enrolled in the class were returning for a second or third year of experimentation.  These young people were motivated to do high-level research and perform well in state and national competitions.  On the first day of school, Mary took a piece of poster board and wrote her goals for all to see.  In response to her challenge, the other students followed her lead within the next couple of weeks.  The goals were daunting.  All of them wanted to represent the region at the state science fair, many of them wanted to win there, and seven of the students wanted to represent the region at the International Science Fair.  Several wanted to win at ISEF.  As they looked at that poster during the year, they were sometimes overwhelmed by the task at hand and sometimes determined to succeed.  I must admit that I was nervous to be their guide.  Could this happen?  How could it happen?  I had been to ISEF, and I know that the research presented there is extraordinary.  Well, I believe those written goals motivated those students to do the seemingly impossible.  Those seven students who wrote ISEF as their goal were finalists there, and six of them were award winners.  Through that year, those students gained scientific knowledge and problem solving skills.  During the science competitions they developed deeper levels of confidence and self-efficacy. Today they continue to grow and flourish at colleges of their choices:  Miami, McGill, MIT, Princeton, University of North Florida, and Yale.
  3. A caring spirit is fostered among the students.  I have always been a fan of Noddings (1992), who asserts that caring is a prerequisite for learning.  Students must feel cared for before they can learn.  In a caring environment, students begin to care about themselves and others and to care about learning.  Eating lunch together with visiting scientists, field trips to research facilities, supporting the experimentation of others and studying together are things that foster caring in our tight-knit community.  The weekend before the regional science fair, one of the families hosts a formal dinner for all of the students, their parents and research mentors.  After dinner, we all gather in a large space where each student can give a brief explanation of their work.  The evening is memorable, and parents volunteer early in the year to host the event.  In science competitions the students in the class consider themselves a team, rather than competitors. When an experiment fails, the group suffers the loss, and when one student wins a prize, the entire class feels like winners.  Through it all many of these students have become best friends, supporting each other after graduation in their new academic challenges.

Project-based science instruction successfully provides opportunities for

authentic scientific learning and personal growth (Colley, 2008).  However, a PBS course must be structured in a way that encourages students to willingly engage in the process.  The research course at our school has met that need.  Flexibility, a total point grading system, quality interaction with scientists in research labs, written research goals and a caring spirit among students fosters student enthusiasm and motivation. 

The results have been spectacular.  The complexity of the investigations has required extraordinary attention to detail, creativity and advanced skills in scientific equipment.  Students regularly communicate with researcher mentors. They seek and graciously accept constructive criticism and use the information to improve their experimental designs.  Most importantly, mentors have been impressed with the students’ scientific reasoning skills, their logical approach to solving problems and their ability to transform an idea into reality with minimal guidance. Since 2001 the research students have earned more than $4000,000 in cash prizes and scholarships. The students are responsible for and excited about their own learning, and they are becoming scientifically literate citizens.  

On the web:

Society for Science and the Public International Science Fair Official Rules and Entry Instructions:  http://www.societyforscience.org/


Colley, K. 2008. Project-based science instruction: A primer.  The Science Teacher, 75(8): 23-28.

 Dewey, J. 1902. The child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Linn, M. C. 2010. Designing standards for lifelong science learning.  Journal of Engineering Education 99 (2): 103-105.

Luhrer, R., Carpenter, S., Schauble, L. and Putz, A.  (2000) Designing classrooms that support inquiry.  In Minstrell, J. and van Zee, E. H. (Eds.), Inquiry into inquiry learning and teaching in science (80-99). Washington D.C: American for the Advancement of Science.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996.  National Science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Naujock, J. 2009.  Incorporating true research opportunities into high school curriculum: A research design course.  School Science and Mathematics 109(7): 369-370.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools.  New York: Teachers College Press.

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