Tackling COVID Research Strengthened My Love of Science

Tackling COVID Research Strengthened My Love of Science

“What major do you plan on pursuing in college?” That is a question asked of many high school students. Throughout my freshman year at Los Altos High School, I very quickly discovered that I had a strong interest in the science field, after completing Biology Honors. I first heard about the Headwaters Research Experience from my Biology Honors teacher, who suggested it to students interested in pursuing a career in science. I figured this would be a great opportunity to gain experience, so I registered!

After the first week, I was faced with a huge challenge: deciding on a topic. Although it sounds so simple, the options seemed endless and I found it super difficult to decide on just one topic. After a lot of thought and talking with my mentor, I decided I wanted to develop a scientific question relating to COVID-19. I worked with viruses and diseases in my Biology Honors class and was extremely fascinated by epidemiology. This background experience I had with viruses and diseases made me want to focus on COVID-19 because of its impact on the world this past year. My question was, “How does the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater fluctuate based on the rising COVID-19 vaccination rates in Los Angeles, California?” This type of scientific question meant I would not be collecting my own data by creating an experiment, but instead I would be analyzing different sets of pre-existing data.

I needed the vaccination progress data from Los Angeles County as well as the data for COVID polymerase chain reaction (PCR) units in wastewater for this project. My mentor was great to work with, helping me find the wastewater data among many public data sets.

Speaking of my mentor, at the beginning of the program I was introduced to Keely Rodriguez, a Doctoral Researcher from the University of Nevada. Keely and I have a shared fascination for viruses and diseases, which made it easier to develop my research question and work with her throughout the program. It has been great working with a female scientist this summer and being mentored by someone who has been successful with a career in science was awesome, because this is a path I hope to pursue! Keely has been incredibly patient with me throughout this process, by giving constructive feedback and being super understanding over the fact that this is my first time writing a manuscript. Having a mentor throughout this process was really helpful with the feedback she gave on my work and the support she provided me throughout the program.

To analyze my data, I transferred the already-existing data into a spreadsheet so all the data was visible in one place and used a linear regression to compare vaccination rates and the amount of PCR units in wastewater. The results of my research supported my hypothesis because the figures I presented suggested that as vaccination rates in Los Angeles County increased, the SARS-CoV-2 PCR units in the wastewater decreased. I started analyzing the data available from December 2020 because that is when vaccines started being administered in California after three COVID vaccines were approved for emergency authorization in the United States. One interesting finding I discovered was that there was a dramatic increase in the PCR units in the wastewater in late December after the country’s citizens started being vaccinated. This could be because when people traveled during the holiday time, COVID cases also increased.

Now going back to that question I’m sure many students have been asked, yes, pursuing a career in science is definitely a goal of mine, even more so now that I’m completing my research experience! Science is something I am very passionate about and something that I enjoy learning about. Connecting with my mentor has been a very positive part of this experience, as well as seeing the progress I have made! It makes me feel so proud seeing what I have accomplished so far, knowing I have grown tremendously as a student. I have found the Summer Research Experience with the Headwaters Science Institute to be a great experience for students with a strong desire to grow as scientists, to gain experience in writing a scientific manuscript, and to work with other young scientists and mentors with many years of scientific training.

Lauren Holm is a Sophomore at Los Altos High School. Her research topic was about COVID-19 vaccines and the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater.

Find out more about our fall research program and register here.

A Mystery Leads to Even More Questions

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!

A Mystery Leads to Even More Questions

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