A Mystery Leads to Even More Questions

Student Driven Research is Headwaters Science Institute’s first and most successful innovation in science education. How we arrived at SDR as a valuable tool for teaching science to teenagers is an interesting story that says as much about the gaps of traditional science education as it does about the solutions SDR can offer.

While all three of HSI’s founders have a passion for science, we all also have a background in environmental education as well. The creation of HSI really grew out of a frustration with the limitations of environmental ed. as a means for instilling a conservation ethic in teenagers but especially as a tool for giving students a positive, educational, science-based experience on field trips. When we first tried to incorporate a high quality science education component into an environmental ed. program, it seemed as though it would be easy to design opportunities for high school students to participate in real data collection for long term research projects. We even partnered with researchers at a respected state university so that we could teach students about the results and implications of the research they would be contributing their time and efforts to.

But no matter how closely the data collection experience mirrored that of real field scientists, no matter how long or passionately we spoke to students about the significance of the project they were becoming a part of, the kids simply did not care. They found the whole process boring. And really, when presented with this finding, many professional scientists would likely not be surprised. In fact, they might use it as validation of our current science education system, in which most people first have the opportunity to participate in science research as undergraduates (if they’re lucky) or graduate students. “Because,” the prevailing thinking goes, “high school kids are too young to do science.”

And this is where the story might have ended, with us designing and offering science participation opportunities for kids on field trips to the mountains that looked great on a brochure or promotional website, but that were relatively ineffective as educational experiences.

Students engrossed in SDR

Students engrossed in SDR

But we, as individuals, weren’t satisfied. Having pushed as far as we could to get students to witness and even participate in real science we knew that it wasn’t enough to get them to learn about and be excited by the possibilities of science. Something was still missing. Pursuing the answer to that mystery led us away from environmental ed. and inspired us to found Headwaters Science Institute as a pure science education organization.

The missing link, as we eventually discovered, was empowering, encouraging, and supporting kids to ask their own questions. Unlike many educational experiences claiming to be “inquiry-based,” SDR goes several steps further. It is scientific inquiry, plain and simple. When we presented kids with a framework in which they are taught how to ask their own questions and then guided through the process of answering those questions using the scientific method, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Our incredible Sierra Nevada field site

One piece of our Sierra Nevada field site

When we first realized that SDR worked, we imagined it as a tool we would use for schools looking for very educational field trips. Bringing kids into our Sierra Nevada field site offered endless opportunities for inspiring students to ask questions about our world. But at about the same time we started to realize that SDR was a REALLY important tool–potentially even a game-changer in science education–that would be most effective if if could be offered to every student. Even if we brought a different class to do SDR at our field site each week, it would be impossible to reach everyone–or even a significant portion of all American students. We needed a different mechanism for delivering SDR to more kids ASAP because we really believe that it will positively affect students’ educations and lives.

And that brings us to where we are today. Headwaters Science Institute has identified a major need in our education system (firsthand scientific research experience) and designed a protocol (Student Driven Research) which addresses this need while truly engaging students. But how best to deliver this to every student? This is the single biggest question that we’ve been trying to answer of late.

Student Driven Research happening on a high school campus

Student Driven Research happening on a high school campus

One innovative way we’ve tried to expose more kids to SDR is by bringing it directly to science classrooms throughout Northern California. While this solution doesn’t solve the problem of scale (there are still only three of us fully trained to teach SDR, regardless of whether we’re teaching kids on field trips or at their own school), it does open this experience up to kids and schools with less financial resources. Not having to cover travel and lodging costs can make SDR affordable to a group that otherwise wouldn’t be able to consider it. So although we believe that bringing individual classes to our field sites for multi-day intensive field trips or experiential education weeks gives students the best, most immersive experience possible with SDR, we recognize that more creative opportunities are needed if we’re going to help get this great tool into the hands of science teachers

Bringing SDR to schools has helped us understand a second important point. While giving this unique experience to millions of students isn’t something we’re scaled to do right now, teaching hundreds or even thousands of teachers how to use SDR in their own classrooms is a much more manageable goal. Hence our focus on hosting Professional Development and Teacher Trainings. It’s all about bringing an idea whose time has come to as many kids as possible as quickly as possible. And HSI isn’t done innovating yet. We’ve got some more ideas about ways to build even more momentum and exposure for SDR in the near future.

Curious what those ideas might be? Stay tuned!

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