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!

Advising the White House on Science Education

Some of you may have seen on the HSI Facebook page that we were recently invited to speak at the White House about science education. It’s been nearly a month since then, and we’re just now finding time to share some more details of the event with you—not because we’re not excited about the occasion, but because things have been really busy here.

Photo by Zach Rudisin, Wikimedia Commons

The opportunity to go to Washington came about when we were contacted by a representative of the White House Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP), who had heard about the science education work we do, specifically our Student Driven Research (SDR), and wanted to learn more about it. We were really excited by the opportunity to share our ideas with some of the most influential scientists and educators in the country.

The meeting was attended by several different members of the OSTP and consisted of Megan, our HSI representative, explaining the motivation and inspiration for developing SDR, and giving an overview of the protocol, then fielding questions. Our ideas seemed to be well received by the White House science team, and sparked a lot of related conversations about how SDR could be applied to some of the big problems evident in our nation’s current science education structure.

The conversations that followed our presentation were really interesting and diverse—too diverse to recap here in their entirety. Suffice it to say that HSI has a lot of new ideas, opportunities, and challenges that we’ll be working on in the coming months as a result of this meeting.

One discussion that developed during the roughly 90-minute meeting that we can share by way of example centered on SDR as a potential tool for high school science teachers all across the country to be able to use in their own classrooms repeatedly throughout the course of a school year. This is definitely a topic that we at HSI had talked about before the trip to the White House, but afterward it became clear that the need to develop and disseminate SDR for this purpose might be more pressing than we had originally believed.

One of the consequences of this development is that HSI is now looking for high school science teachers eager to gain a new teaching strategy that we think can be revolutionary in improving student engagement, critical thinking, and learning outcomes. In the near future we would like to solidify a small group of such teachers to pilot SDR in their classrooms, while working closely with HSI to give us the feedback we need to refine our practices for this specific application. This would be a very inexpensive way to learn about and give invaluable feedback on a big new idea in science education. If you or someone you know are interested, please contact us.

So in summary: Megan addressed some very highly respected science/education people at the White House. They were excited about what HSI does. No, the President was not at the meeting. And, perhaps the most embarrassing thing about the experience: we don’t have any White House selfies or group photos to illustrate it! However, the most positive outcome for HSI is that we will continue working with our new contacts at the OSTP, which will hopefully make accomplishing our goals of improving science education across the country that much easier to achieve.

Thoughts on “Getting it Right” in Science Education

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Research is formalized curiosity.”

Her succinct observation gets to the dueling requirements at the heart of science: human inquisitiveness and the established process of the scientific method. Without curiosity, scientific research has no driving momentum, no fuel for expanding human understanding or uncovering new breakthroughs. At the same time, researching any phenomenon absent the general procedures of the scientific method results in a waste of time. No certainty is possible in our world unless a hypothesis has been tested in this specific manner.

For those who call science their profession, the scientific method is less an impediment to their work than a principle validating what they do. But for those just learning about science, students learning about gravity, or molar concentration, or evolution for the first time, the scientific method can be invisible and mysterious. For teenagers attempting to act out their part in the time-honored science lab, it may seem more the source of confusing jargon than a set of essential guidelines.

For the student engaged with HSI’s Student Driven Research (SDR), on the other hand, curiosity is a given, but the scientific method is bound to become a stumbling block at some point or another in their independent research. In fact, we’ve found that just about the best way for a student to learn the process of scientific research is by “guided trial and error.”

While many science educators want to explain the entire scientific method to students before they’ve had a need to use it, we’ve found that kids tend to intuitively grasp much of the logical flow of research simply by asking and attempting to answer their own questions about the world. But when they do inevitably arrive at the difficult parts, students are much more receptive to feedback about “getting it right” because it’s relevant to them, their questions, and their research.In our experience, this learning on the job aspect of SDR is one of its biggest advantages over traditional science education.

Consider, for a moment, the matter of of sample size in experimental design and the statistics. It’s one thing to tell students, without any particular relevance to them that more independent data points translate to a clearer the picture in their results. On the other hand, a student participating in SDR might hear from her facilitator that her sample size will be insufficient if she gathers data from the leaves of only three different trees. Or students may even come up with this themselves after measuring 3 very different leaves and they see that their data does paint a very clear picture. So, even if she doesn’t immediately understand why she needs more data, she has every incentive to ask questions until she understands principles at work–until she “gets it right.” She also has the luxury of a SDR facilitator who is prepared to take advantage of this powerful learning experience, possibly even having this student share and explain her new understanding of sample size to the rest of the group.

This is what we mean by guided trial and error. It’s channeling students’ own curiosity into the “formalized” procedures of science, usually to great effect, and it’s just one of the many great learning opportunities built into Student Driven Research.

Building New Curriculum

At Headwaters one of our favorite jobs is building curriculum. With this blog post we thought we would give you some insight into how we build curriculum and share a new idea we have in the works. Writing curriculum for our Student Driven Research can be scarily open ended. We come up with an engaging topic for students, pull together some background information, and spend the rest of the time running through scenarios of how to turn even the zaniest student questions in to rigorous research projects.

For example, forest fires play a huge role in the ecology of the Sierra Nevada, where we’re located and we have been trying to build some curriculum around this phenomenon for a while now. Forest fires have the ingredients for a fun student research project: they are all over the news, often deadly, but also reasonably accessible and intuitive to students without huge amounts of background information.

Once we have an exciting topic, like forest fires, we try to come up with some hands-on ways to introduce students to the subject at hand. The key is to still leaving enough intellectual room for students to brainstorm and come up with ideas of their own. One way we have considered doing this is by bringing student to recent and historic burn sites in the area to look at the forest in different stages of regrowth. Another option could be to visit recent burn sites where students take measures of soil and water chemistry.

From here, who knows where our students’ research projects will go. Maybe they will test how forest succession progresses relative to changes in soil chemistry or maybe they will try to measure how much carbon was in a tree that burned and how big a diamond that would correspond to. The latter has actually happened in a program we did recently and students had to use a considerable amount of math and chemistry to get an answer to it.

Our overall goal in planning fun curriculum to use with our Student Driven Research framework is to try to prepare for whatever direction students’ ideas may take them so we can help them develop and push their own knowledge.

We hope you enjoyed this insight into some of the work we do,

-Headwaters Science Institute

What Science Education in the U.S. Needs, Part IV

Science as creative outlet
Science as creative outlet

Today, we’re wrapping up our mini-series of posts on changes to the American science education system. The inspiration for these posts is a 2013 New York Times article in which science writer Claudia Dreifus interviewed 19 educators, experts, and students and asked them what one change they’d make to the nation’s science education system if they could. We thought many of the answers she received pointed toward the approach that Headwaters Science Institute has taken in designing innovative science programs for middle and high school students.

Here goes!

Salman Khan, founder, Khan Academy, which offers free online courses.

Despite the STEM subjects’ being about new ways of thinking and creating new things, many students don’t perceive them as creative. And that’s because, to a large degree, the type of filters we have for these subjects are actually filtering out our most creative people. If I had one wish in this area, it would be to see that creativity and invention became the central focus of STEM courses and that the traditional skills be viewed as what they are: tools to empower creativity.

This means more of the students’ evaluation would be based on a portfolio of what they’ve done, as opposed to a score on a standardized test. This means more of class time would be devoted to exploring and inventing and less to lecturing and quiz-taking.

Obviously we believe that creativity is an important outlet for students learning science. While one of the people interviewed for this story suggested that collaboration between science and art classes would help science education, we believe that Kahn’s ideas above are a better framework for infusing creativity into STEM, and science education more specifically. HSI’s Student Driven Research model gives students ultimate creativity to drive their own research in the direction they think is most interesting. Perhaps one of the most astounding findings we’ve made about teenagers is that they’re perfectly capable of doing high quality research if they know it’s their own creative ideas they’re exploring. That’s not only an exciting and encouraging finding, but it’s all the more reason we need to support this sort of innovative science education–so we can bring it to millions of students in the near future.

Deon Sanders, fifth grader, Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore.

I need science and math education to be more about life.

Kids these days live in a world that’s way more influenced by science than we adults could ever have dreamed of when we were children. But one gap that still exists is the difference between the application of science and the understanding of science among the general public. Perhaps the best way to close this gap is to give kids first-hand experience doing the same kind of work scientists do as a regular part of their science education. While they will not have time to learn about how every topic in every branch of science is studied, they will take away an understanding of how real-world problem solving works and how crucial the scientific method is to understanding our world. We believe that doing real scientific research is not an advanced activity for only the most motivated high school and college students, but is actually a fundamental exercise that every student should be exposed to throughout his/her education. That’s how HSI believes science education becomes more about life.


So that’s the end of our mini-series on improving science education in the U.S. We hope you’ve enjoyed the dialogue. If you’d like to join the conversation, we’d love to hear from you. You can use the “Comments” section to tell us the one change you’d like to see made to science education in the U.S. Thanks for sharing your ideas!


Headwaters Science Institute