Re-thinking student-driven scientific investigations

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Scientific investigations are key to being a scientist. A typical high school science curriculum will have the scientific method as a key component. Students learn about the steps of designing a fair scientific experiment – writing an aim, devising a hypothesis, designing a method, analysing the results, scrutinizing the results, drawing a conclusion etc. This is then matched up with writing an investigation report.

In New South Wales, Australia, high school students are required to plan, conduct and report on a scientific investigation of their choice in the Student Research Project (SRP). I have always found the SRP to be a wonderful opportunity for student choice and personalisation of their learning because students can choose what they want to investigate and different students are able to design, conduct and analyse their experiments to different levels, according to their interests, ability level, passion and commitment. However what often happens with the SRP is that students are given a list of pre-approve “experiments” to do at home by themselves. Some popular ones are which kinds of sticky tape are the stickiest, what will keep flowers fresh the longest, what conditions will cause bread to go mouldy the quickest, etc.

While there is nothing wrong with these experiments (as they are effective in enabling students to understand the scientific method and how the write an investigation report), it does not not reflect how real scientists work. Real scientists don’t do research by themselves. They usually work with in a team, often with a mentor/supervisor who guides them in their research. Their research contributes to a bigger picture of research in their field. They don’t randomly pick a topic from a booklet and do an experiment hundreds of students have done before. When I was in third year university zoology studies, my classmates and I had an Honours student as our supervisor and we did a mini-honours investigation on whether skinks can identify predators through scent. It was something that has not been done before in that area. It was a topic that would contribute to the understanding of animal behaviour. It was one of the most authentic, engaging and valuable science learning experiences for me. And most importantly I was guided by another scientist who was more experienced than me. I learnt so much from that apprentice-master style of learning.

So how can we bring that type of experience to schools? I think now it’s easier than ever. With technology, it is now possible to create and maintain community partnerships. For the SRP, perhaps students can partner with universities? Can high school students help contribute to university research? Can high school students partner up with an Honours student or scientist? Perhaps students can use their SRP in citizen science projects such as monitoring the environment?

The SRP is a great opportunity for students to experience “real science”. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to pursue their own interests. The SRP is a great opportunity for students to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time to re-think the SRP and think about how can we do it differently to inspire our students.

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