The Importance of Practical Application and Hands-On Research

The Importance of Practical Application and Hands-On Research

Hands-on research and the practical application of scientific concepts is critical for students as they learn and grow throughout their education. Allowing students to see the real world relevance of the subject matter they are learning goes a long way towards engaging students in the material. Students who can see how the material can be applied to their daily lives are more likely to find it compelling and be interested in asking questions and exploring.

Additionally, hands-on research and practical application of concepts can help students develop important skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. These are skills that transcend fields, and they are essential for navigating higher education and the workforce. Opportunities to develop these skills in a secondary education setting can set students on a road to success. 

The Headwaters Research Experience provides students with a robust experience to discover and nurture these vital skills. Students are able to take their science education to a new level while being mentored by a professional scientist in designing and conducting an original research project. Students see through the project from conception to publication by conducting field research (or compiling pre-existing available datasets) and learning how to analyze their findings. 

Our Fall Research Experience participants just presented their research last week:

The Headwaters Research Experience encourages hands-on research and practical application of concepts while students are still in the secondary education phase of their lives. Students exposed to this type of education emerge from the program with a completely different outlook with regards to science and they see opportunities to pursue science open in front of them. This isn’t an experience that all students are able to have through their traditional school programs, which is why Headwaters offers this program – we believe in expanding access to hands-on science and guiding students as they explore new skills.

Sign Up for Our Spring Research Experience

Sign-ups are live for our Spring Research Experience and we are offering four additional mentor hours to students who sign up through December 31st! Mentoring is a key complement to the practical skills side of science education at Headwaters!

4 Headwaters Research Experience students published in academic journal

4 Headwaters Research Experience students published in academic journal

She was a middle schooler with a passion for bird watching when she joined Headwater Science Institute’s Research Experience just a year ago. Now she’s a published researcher attending college at 14 years old.  

Lara Tseng’s stunning educational evolution, from middle-schooler to full-time student in the Early Entrance Program at CSULA, is just one example of the success experienced by graduates of Headwater’s Research Experience. In fact, she’s one of four recent Headwaters students who had their research manuscripts published in the Journal of Emerging Investigators.  

Colin Saltzgaber, a senior at the Nueva School in San Mateo, Calif., cited his published work on vegetation in the Yosemite Valley as a primary contributing factor to his acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania.  

Thresia Vazhaeparambil, a senior at Harker School in San Jose, Calif., published her research studying the dams, reservoirs, and watersheds in the foothills surrounding her home.  

And in 2020, Monta Vista High School student Ryan Li was published for his research on the relationship between macroinvertebrates, water quality, and the health of a creek near his home.  

A huge congratulations to all four of our students! Below is more on each project and how the Research Experience helped in their journey to being published.  

A passion for birds turns into an educational opportunity

“I just never was expecting something like a manuscript to be a part of the equation, but Headwaters encouraged me to do that,” Lara Tseng said. “My research mentor helped me with writing and editing the manuscript because, especially in middle school, there really isn’t a lot of that incorporated into the curriculum. Headwaters and the people there definitely guided me through the experience so I didn’t really feel like I was alone or afraid to approach something.” 

Lara’s project focused on eggshell consumption in different reproductive stages and broods of the Western Bluebird. She was inspired after reading an article about feeding eggshells to wild birds and trying it in her own backyard. She had also begun to monitor bluebirds the previous year.  

She called the impetus to her research as a “combination of interest and coincidence,” a good starting point for many good scientific inquiries. She’s since enrolled in CSULA, one of the few programs in the nation that allows students 16 and under to be full-time university students.  

“For me, the Research Experience changed a lot of things about my perception of science,” she said. “… It taught me about the different aspects of a study: Going from the initial observation that leads to a question that you’re interested in, discovering the answer to it and then hypothesizing and creating a methodology that actually works and then actually going through with that methodology and producing results and drawing some sort of conclusion from those results.   

“One thing that surprised me is the results; they don’t have to match up with your hypothesis. It can be completely different, and it can still be really important impactful research.”

A dream to attend UPenn becomes a reality 

Colin Saltzgaber has had his eye on attending the University of Pennsylvania, where his dad graduated from, for as long as he can remember. He said his Research Experience was a big part of being accepted, specifically a letter of recommendation from Headwaters Executive Director Meg Seifert.  

“Meg touched upon not only the work I did with Headwaters, but also she wrote about broader things like work ethic and how I contributed to help Headwaters outside of science, whether it was through donations or giving talks helping other students out,” said Colin, who plans on studying mineralogy and geology at Penn. “The Headwaters program itself, it was one of things I talked a lot about, ways I could back up my interest in mineralogy and geology.” 

Colin’s research project focused on vegetation in relation to slope in the Yosemite Valley. He said the path to getting published was “tedious and stressful, to be honest,” but rewarding and well worth it in the end.  

“This stuff is really important and something I’ll take to college with me,” he said.  


Environmental concern for her own backyard becomes published research 

Thresia Vazhaeparambil read with concern about the proposed expansion of the Pacheco Reservoir in Santa Clara County and decided to do something about it. Her Research Experience project put a literal microscope on the impact of dams on the nitrification of the surrounding ecosystem.  

“The rendering of the proposed expanded reservoir will increase the reservoir’s operational capacity up to 140,000 acre-feet of water,” she said. “Dams have many widely known benefits to humans, but not many people are aware of the harmful effects they can have on their surrounding environment.  

“An expansion of this magnitude will have significant and severe impacts on the reservoir’s ecosystem, which is why I wanted to further study dams and the nitrification of their surroundings.” 

She echoed Colin’s sentiments of the publication process being arduous but worth it.  

“I was not expecting the depth of feedback that I received and was surprised by the extensive nature of the process,” she said. “… It was reviewed by three scientists with relevant expertise in the specific field in addition to the editors and reviewers of the journal itself. While the process seemed intimidating at first, it was an exciting learning experience.” 


Finding large-scale climate phenomena in his own backyard 

Ryan Li also based his project out of interest in the water quality in a prominent watershed in the San Jose area, studying the relationship between macroinvertebrates, water quality, and the health of Stevens Creek.  

He said his favorite part of the process was “the opportunity to delve deeply into an area of science which I have been interested in while helping to make new potential discoveries which relate to that field of science as well as the study area.” 

He said the publication process helped him improve his ability to translate findings into writing.  

“I would say to a student considering entering this program that they should definitely give it a go,” he said. “Even if you don’t have an exact idea of what your research project would look like, the people who run the program will help you narrow down and guide you through the process of writing a research paper.”