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!

Headwaters Research Experience Students Investigate the Importance of Biodiversity

Headwaters Research Experience Students Investigate the Importance of Biodiversity

One of the most important tasks biologists face today is understanding the factors influencing biodiversity loss. While we have an understanding of the primary drivers that lead to species’ population declines like habitat degradation, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change, we still need to understand the magnitude of these influences on ecological interactions. Human population growth, increased consumption, and resource inefficiency are pushing species to the brink of extinction, and the extinction of species stresses interconnectedness of ecosystems. Emphasis on the number of species and their population sizes is primarily of focus but species and healthy systems also provide ecosystem services, which benefit our water, food, air, and more. In the U.S., more than one-third of all crop production relies on insect pollination and many pollinator conservation efforts focus on the decline of native bee populations, highlighting the importance of biodiversity to our agriculture system.

Western snowy plover, a small shorebird blending into the rocks on a beach

In the Headwaters Research Experience, we help students understand the importance of biodiversity and the ecological interactions between plants and animals. Throughout the sessions, we typically have around 20% of students conduct a project related to investigating how pollution, climate change, and human activity influence biodiversity. What’s unique is that these students choose locations close to home! When students do this, it builds a stronger connection between them and their local environment. We encourage students to dive deep into the species they can potentially find within their local area. 

A small toad in grass

Are there threatened or endangered species close to home? What are their roles? Are there invasive species in the area, and are they benefiting or harming the native species? We encourage students to think about these questions to help understand on a deeper level the importance of the current situation. The research undertaken in our program connects students to the environment. Students who go into the biological sciences build on this strong foundation. Not to mention these biodiversity-focused studies get students out into the natural world and showcase a small sample of what field work entails. Whether students are studying microplastics, agricultural run-off, human activity, differences between urban and rural regions, or water quality, there is a project to fit everyone’s interest as they explore the topic of biodiversity.

California condor, a large black bird with bald head, flies over arid landscape.

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting endangered species! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students pursue projects that spark their curiosity and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks to students around the country. Thank you!

Headwaters Research Experience Students Explore Climate Change

Headwaters Research Experience Students Explore Climate Change

Climate change is an extraordinarily important topic as it impacts all life on the planet in various ways. Weather patterns and regional climates changing over time isn’t a new phenomenon, but the rapid pace of change caused by human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the severity of the consequences is what alarms scientists.

There are a few unknowns, namely how severe consequences will end up being. We could see ecosystem collapses due to biodiversity loss because of a failure of organisms to adapt to the new bioclimatic conditions they face. We are already seeing higher frequency and more severity from extreme weather events and also every day sea level rise, both threatening Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and areas around the world.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina

There is no doubt that our world today has been shaped by our past and that this is a very complex issue, with controversy surrounding the topic from every angle. Many Headwaters Research Experience students are passionate about climate change and choose to explore it and its impacts for their projects. Charlie and Kian participated in our Spring Research Experience and had different approaches to studying climate change.

Charlie was primarily interested in how land temperatures are related to the incidence and strength of hurricanes. Charlie aggregated temperature and hurricane data over the past 20 years, and he found a significant relationship between temperature and hurricane frequency, but not between temperature and hurricane strength. This finding went against his initial hypothesis, and he concluded that while the increase in temperature has caused a higher incidence of hurricanes, it has not necessarily influenced the strength. It was an eye opening experience for Charlie and like many times in scientific research, he ended with more questions than he started with!

Kian wanted to approach the impacts of climate change in a different way. He did this by investigating how the predicted ecological niches of spider monkey species change through 2070. He used the Community Climate System Model, which uses previous climate data to simulate climate conditions in the future and Ecological Niche Models to predict species’ ranges. Given current climate projections into 2070, Kian found all spider monkey species within his study will experience a reduction in size of their suitable bioclimatic niche but to varying degrees. While all species are impacted by climate change, variability exists and some benefit while some could face tough futures.

We have many students considering the damage humans are doing to Earth’s climate and they’ve looked at climate change from many different angles! We always encourage students’ curiosity about these, and all, topics and hope that their research increases their understanding of the nuances of the issues. 

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting climate change science! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students like Charlie and Kian pursue projects that spark their curiosity and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks to students around the country. Thank you!

Students Explore the Importance of Water

Students Explore the Importance of Water

The importance of water should never be understated! It is a vital component of all life-sustaining processes and integral to chemical reactions. The human body is made of up nearly 60-70% water by body weight, with a decrease of 4% causing dehydration and losses of 15% becoming life-threatening or fatal. Drilling down further, water is considered a universal solvent, it plays an important structural role in our cells as it regulates their shape based on water concentration in various environments and facilitates biochemical reactions by being directly involved in dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions. And this is only at the cellular level. As water crises and droughts highlight the lack of consistent water access around the globe, we know that water is essential for life.  

Our Headwaters Research Experience students recognize the importance of water quality to aquatic systems, and we help students create projects centered around the analysis of water quality in their neighborhoods and watersheds. These types of water quality studies are simple to conduct, but can yield impactful results  and raise awareness among local community members. 

Ethan Liu was curious about water in NYC and focused on comparing water quality between the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Bayside, which have a sizable difference in average household income. Ultimately, Ethan found that there was no significant difference in pH or total dissolved solids (TDS, like inorganic salts and some organic matter) for water sampled from restaurants in these regions. Ethan, and the community members who allowed him to sample their water, were reassured by his findings.

Ethan’s presentation is the first of our student presentations featured here if you’d like to learn more:

Katie Chen wanted to research the effects of fertilizer on the water quality of Saratoga Creek. Many land managers use fertilizers to increase crop yields, but nitrogen runoff can cause significant damage to the watershed and harm water quality in the area. Through her experimental research design, Katie found that the fertilizer significantly reduced the pH and increased the TDS of Saratoga Creek water. Katie did a great job designing, conducting, and analyzing her research and the Journal of Emerging Investigators accepted her write up for publication!

Read Katie’s paper here!

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting water! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students like Ethan and Katie pursue projects that impact their communities and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks, like Dr. Tonya Shearer’s on coral reef health, to students around the country. Thank you!

Creating Opportunities for Science Education Outside of the Classroom

Creating Opportunities for Science Education Outside of the Classroom

Science isn’t simply the memorization of information out of a textbook but is an entire process of how we expand our understanding of the world around us. We challenge each other’s ideas, gather data, statistically analyze data to ensure the assertions we are making are valid, and ultimately disseminate that information. What students read in a textbook is the current consensus of that ongoing debate. But in classrooms across the country, there’s a lack of hands-on research opportunities for students to get involved, develop critical thinking, and foster an overall understanding and interest in the scientific process.

We developed the Headwaters Research Experience to supplement what students learn in school and to enrich science education, inspire curiosity through student-led research, address the wealth inequality of education, and prepare students for the future. Our program offers an affordable hands-on research experience where students are able to explore what they are curious about and design a project around that topic. We supply participants with an in-depth understanding of the scientific method and take them through all stages, starting with the question-asking process and ending with the dissemination of their results via live oral presentations and peer-reviewed manuscripts. No matter what the topic is that they wish to research, we help them design a project around the question and pair them with a professional science mentor who has experience conducting research. Students experience the ups and downs, pressures, and other difficulties that exist with conducting their own novel research but emerge with a more robust understanding of science and a satisfying sense of accomplishment. In the end, students join a growing network of alumni and mentors which will aid in their professional growth and can potentially lead to career opportunities in the future. Everyone needs help navigating the path of pursuing a science-related career, and our network helps connect students.

Headwaters Science Institute is proud to offer our student-driven research experience regardless of location. This spring we had the opportunity to work with Angelina, a student in South Korea, over 5800 miles away from the California coast. Angelina looked at differences between compost and synthetic fertilizer and her research is a prime example of using interests to drive science. Like all of our research experience students, Angelina was able to work with a professional mentor and she will be published in our journal. One of the benefits of having a professional mentor is that the students are supported in their efforts and not experiencing the ups and downs of conducting a research project alone.

Check out Angelina’s presentation:

Angelina felt a sense of relief and accomplishment after conducting an intensive project that truly embodied the scientific process. She also researched a topic close to her and her father’s interests which made the process of science more impactful in her life.

The Headwaters Research Experience is not meant to replace current science education but instead supplements students’ education by connecting the dots between the scientific process and the published results. Students like Angelina are able to design and direct their own research, and are rewarded with the accomplishment of conducting a feat the majority of students today wouldn’t complete until the end of their Bachelor’s degree.

Registration for our Fall Research Experience is still open until September 18th. Please find more information on our website and contact dan@headwatersscienceinstitute.org with any questions.

Back to School Fundraiser

With your support, Headwaters can fund more scholarships, provide more Lunch with a Scientist talks free of charge, and supplement the costs of bringing programs to schools, which all means more science for more students! If you are able, please support our Back to School Fundraiser:

Dan Dudek

Dan Dudek

Instructor