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!

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

Alright, here goes Part II of our mini-series, “What Science Education in the U.S. Needs.”SpencerandkidsBMI

In case you missed Part I, you can go back and read it here. Basically, we’re breaking down excerpts from a New York Times article by Claudia Dreifus in which she asked 19 individuals with an interest and stake in science education in the U.S. what they would like to see change in this field.

We thought many of their answers hinted at, or outright called for, the kind of program that HSI has designed to complement traditional classroom science education with hands-on student research.

If you’d like to see the Times article in its entirety (and you should, it’s full of important insights about science education), it’s linked here. Also, we’d just like to point out that many of the experts, educators, and students represented in this story seem to be grasping for something very much like Student Driven Research. Perhaps the reason they’re struggling to define this thing that American science education is missing is because they don’t know about HSI and our work—yet. We hope that with enough momentum we can start providing some concrete, student-ready, methods that we can offer students directly or provide for science teachers around the country.

And now, on with the post!

Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel laureate in medicine; biochemist, University of California, San Francisco.

“I think that the thing science educators have to do is teach one important lesson: that science requires immersion. A lot of teaching is about setting up these little projects. But real science happens when you’re really immersed in a question.

Now I’m not talking about general science literacy, which is one thing. I’m talking about science education aimed at developing a new generation of scientists, which is something else. The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn’t allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn’t something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum.”

Well, it’s very flattering to think that a Nobel laureate biochemist thinks we need more of what HSI can provide. We think our Student Driven Research protocol is pretty great for many of the same reasons Blackburn wishes more students had a chance to become “immersed in a question.” Plus, we have plenty of ideas about how we can use the 60 or 90-minute blocks available to school students and turn them into times when real science is done. (Teachers, this would be a great time to contact us to ask the obvious question: HOW?)

Carl E. Wieman, Nobel laureate in physics; former associate director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.”

Sounds great! Let’s see how HSI’s protocol stack up with Wieman’s ideas:

“Think like scientists”…check.

“Discuss topics with each other”…check.

“Get frequent, targeted feedback”…check.

“Real-world examples of how science works”…double-check!

Wow, looks like another Nobel laureate is proposing a situation to benefit science education that seems surprisingly like Student Driven Research.

Catherine L. Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I teach freshman chemistry at M.I.T. Chemistry — and I think this is true of the other sciences, too — is taught with a historical bent. The students learn about how the great discoveries of the past were made. How did people figure out about that electrons were negatively charged particles, for example? The result is that it can seem as if all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.”

Now, like many of the other pieces we’re highlighting this week on the blog, this excerpt is just a bit of what this speaker has to say overall. If you want the full context, you should read the entire piece.

Still, Drennan’s critique of traditional science education here really resonates with us. Yes, previous discoveries are important, but if teenagers—especially teenagers who don’t come from the “white male” demographic that gets credit for so many famous discoveries—can’t see where they fit into science, they might never give it a chance. Our approach to science education can complement the necessary historical side of science with the sexier curiosity and hands-on discovery side. More importantly, students using our protocols realize that they are capable of making real, interesting, important discoveries themselves using just their native curiosity, a few simple materials, and the scientific method. It’s hard to imagine the average science lecture or “lab” inspiring these epiphanies in students!