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High School Research?
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High School Research?

A replicable success story from one San Antonio High School

by W. Patrick Cunningham

The story begins in late winter, after the classes on the master schedule had already been locked in place and students had largely made their senior year class selections. One of my junior AP chemistry students approached me and asked, "Isn't there a third-year chemistry class? I want to go into chemical engineering and am afraid I'll forget a lot of my chemistry before graduation." On the face of it, the whole question appeared unanswerable, and I admitted that chances were low, but that I'd ask the science department chair and academic assistant principal.

But a kind of academic revolution had taken place in the previous session of the Texas legislature. Intense pressure from teachers and business leaders had caused a radical alteration in graduation requirements for new high school students. Career and technical courses were in, four-by-four (four years of math, science, English and social studies) and multiple end-of-course exams in each discipline were out. Students would have greater flexibility in creating their four year plan, and they would be encouraged to get specialty endorsements in academic areas and even certifications in business, medical and technical fields. STEM endorsement was to be one of these, and a Scientific Research and Design (SR&D) course was one of the STEM options.

As it is envisioned, SR&D is highly flexible. Some teachers have used it to add a third year organic chemistry class to the high school curriculum. It could be "tweaked to accommodate almost anything past a first-year college course, as long as the teacher, lab and equipment are available. The announcement that this class would be available to our seniors was met with high enthusiasm by those who had expressed interest. However, only six actually enrolled. This meant that, since twelve is the minimum class size for a stand-alone section each section would have to be "stacked" atop an AP chemistry class. It was our judgement that even though I had taken enough college and graduate organic chemistry courses to teach it, the intensive nature of organic instruction, and lab safety would make it an unwise action. My primary responsibility had to be in favor of my AP chem students. Moreover, available equipment was not adequate for students to use in the analytical phase of synthetic organic labs. So we took our cue from the title of the course, and announced that the year would be spent designing labs and performing them a true scientific research course.

The optimum way to involve high school students in scientific R&D is undoubtedly to locate local university, institute and industry-based principal investigators who had a need and desire for talented high school interns. In fact, at least two of my AP chemistry students had already engaged in such work being done at a San Antonio research institution and the University of Texas Health Science Center. However! district policy prudently declined to permit a formal association that involved granting high school credit in that manner. There are significant liability problems in such a partnership. Moreover, the logical venues for that kind of work were far enough away from our campus so that students would have to use an early release privilege each day in order to travel and perform the work. If we wanted to offer the class! all research would have to be done in the high school library, prep room, and lab.

What kind of scientific research can be done on a high school campus? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Reading and analyzing already published research is a critical part of the course description. Students had done such work in the AP chemistry class, as their response to the requirement to link chemistry to current technology and society. Our library did not have direct subscriptions to mainline chemistry journals, but my student teacher, a University student! had one-semester online access. So did a couple of the research students, who were also enrolled in dual-credit college courses. So for most of the year, students were able to look up existing journal articles, and generate adequate bibliographies for their work.

Overnight! I had become the principal investigator in a team of seven. My graduate degree work had been in science education, not a research lab. The questions that I and my high school chem team colleagues faced had to do with teaching high school and AP chemistry classes. There were many such problems, so as the year developed, we determined that the laboratory phase of the R&D class would focus on them, rather than on cutting-edge work that required instrumentation we had no access to:

  • Refine existing AP laboratory experiments, and labs and investigations for pre-AP work'" by designing techniques to improve their accuracy and precision. We could also convert qualitative labs by adding a quantitative component, or turn lock-step classroom exercises into directed-inquiry investigations.

  • Design new lab experiments for topics that had traditionally been taught using lectures, instructor demonstrations, worksheets or POGIL exercises.
  • Modify existing labs on every pedagogical level to make them "greener."
  • Through peer editing an instructor input, improve research students' skills in writing research and laboratory reports.
  • Interact with last year and AP students in and out of lab to help them understand underlying concepts and connect it to the laboratory work.
  • Throughout the course, become aware of opportunities to submit proposals for grants offered by charitable, educational and professional groups, and actually prepare and submit such proposals

The students and I had already had some experience with these investigation channels. Two years before, when the research students were in their first-year course, they helped me with the lab work underlaying an investigation of the order of a chemical reaction. Vernier Instruments published this in their educator newsletter (c.f.

During the following year, they did the lab work that permitted the publication of one of the early resources of the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, a Coulomb's law simulation and study of force vs separation distance. (c.f.

Over the course of the year, it became clear that the research students were helping to identify and solve one of the biggest structural problems of the AP chemistry class. AP chemistry is supposed to parallel and replicate the first year of university chemistry. However, the fifty-minute class period common in high schools makes it very difficult to access laboratory protocols designed for a college chemistry class. All of us with chemistry degrees remember spending three hours or more each week in our college labs. Unless the AP class is designed as a zero hour or ninth hour class (extending the school day by using time before or after school), or students come on Saturday mornings, all labs have to fit into a fifty or ninety-minute period.

The research students designing AP labs were themselves constrained daily to one class period. So early on in their work, they began keeping good records on how long each activity took them. Then, when they had developed an activity and were ready to test it on inexperienced students, they tracked the time each group took for their work. This would then assure the user of the lab that no¬vices could perform it in one class period.

What results came from the first year of the research-design course? Students prepared and submitted several grant proposals, most of which simply gave them practice. However, three grants were approved, and netted over $2,000 for new chemicals, library materials and equipment. Papers were prepared for and approved by the American Association of Chemistry Teachers and the Journal of Chemical Education.

Publications were both online and in print. Students derived much satisfaction from this recognition, and teachers who used their work have expressed their thanks. Students in the course graduated with honors and moved on to major universities.

Could the Scientific Research and Design course be replicated in other schools, other districts? I believe it can. With adequate enrollment college-level science courses can be taught beyond the first-year material replicated in AP biology, chemistry and physics. Such courses would be dependent on the adequacy of lab facilities and safety equipment. With smaller groups, the kind of research that our students did is certainly possible, and could be highly beneficial.

The Science Teachers Association of Texas



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