Studies in Scientific Research

Brief Course Description

This course introduces students to the process of conducting scientific research. The course is offered for students who wish to go beyond the typical high school or AP science course, to develop the skills and hands-on experience required in professional science. In many ways, Studies in Scientific Research (SSR) has the structure and expectations of a university research course (such as UCLA Physics 293 TUT 1 – Research Tutorial). It provides an open-ended theoretical and experimental research environment in which students: 1) decide what makes a good problem to investigate; 2) decide whether the problem they have chosen lends itself to investigation within the constraints of the laboratory time and resources available to them; 3) analyze their data to formulate clear, logical conclusions; and 4) present their findings in a format that is acceptable to the scientific community. Students are encouraged to consider and plan for experimental uncertainties and, whenever possible, to design and fabricate their own apparatus. Currently, most SSR topics of research center in the disciplines of physics and engineering. Past and present investigations have examined aspects of microbial fuel cells, nonlinear optics, microwave electronics, thermo-acoustic refrigeration, freezing-by-boiling techniques, computational physics, solar-powered devices, hydrogen fuel, biodiesel engines, undersea evolution, chaotic dynamics, electromagnetic devices and mathematical physics. Some topics have come from the disciplines of biology and chemistry. However, any scientific topic that can generate a variety of questions and be built upon from one year to the next is a viable candidate for investigation.
Early in the first semester, class time is devoted to determining what equipment, funds, library resources, software, computers, and teachers are available to SSR students. In addition, class time is used to test the methodologies and experimental procedures that others have already used in the area of interest. Once a suitable investigation has been defined and a higher degree of understanding of the topic has been achieved, students work systematically and consistently toward conducting and completing their research project. Various assessment methods are used. 1) Each student's progress in pursuing meaningful, achievable research is monitored on a daily basis through direct observation and ongoing consultation. Students are also required to maintain in-class journals detailing daily progress toward completing their investigations. 2) Students are required to submit quarterly papers describing the progress of their research. 3) The teacher conducts quarterly progress reviews (grade evaluations) on each student. 4) At appropriate intervals during the academic year, students may present their research through formal presentations to the school community. 5) At the end of the year, students produce a scientific paper on their research findings, which is published in the school's Journal of Science.

Context for Course

Our school provides a broad and rigorous course of study in the sciences. We offer twenty different science courses to students in grades 9 – 12, including three honors-level courses, six AP courses, as well as high-level specialist courses in fields such as oceanography, biotechnology, meteorology and astronomy. We require all students to take a minimum of five years of laboratory science in the 7th through 12th grades, and we recommend they take six years. In fact, most students take significantly more than the requirements, often doubling up to take multiple science courses in a single year. Our school attracts a diverse group of talented young adults, including some with remarkable aptitude in science. For example, this year four students won silver or gold medals in the international Physics, Chemistry and Linguistics Olympiads. Many of our students engage in scientific research during the summer through internships at universities and other research institutions. Therefore we offer Studies in Scientific Research (SSR) for students who wish to go beyond the typical high school or AP science course, to develop the skills and hands-on experience required in professional science. Through this course we hope to inspire those exceptionally talented students to stay in the sciences, and to channel their abilities into the fields where they can contribute the most.

History of Course Development

Studies in Scientific Research has blossomed from an initial group of 6 students four years ago to two full-sized classes and from strictly seniors to students from the entire campus. It is designed for 11th and 12th grade students, however exceptional 10th graders are allowed to enroll, too. The course has generated many different projects that were researched throughout the year—a multifarious mix of everything from microbial fuel cells, electric cars, microwave electronics to plasma rail guns. These projects have been completed with the guidance of the teacher and the support of our school’s science department. Additionally, out of this multitude of separate projects there was often a common theme that tied students together; for example, many teams chose to focus on alternative forms of energy and other important issues facing modern society. Students of Studies in Scientific Research have published two journal issues of their research results. The first issue planted the seeds of serious science research at our school and the second issue has solidified the foundations and helped to propel the program to further success.

Supplemental Instructional Materials

Studies in Scientific Research (SSR) has, in many ways, the same structure and system as university research courses (such as UCLA Physics 293 TUT 1 – Research Tutorial). Therefore, the course does not have one unique textbook that all students use. Students utilize articles, papers from scientific journals (e.g., American Journal of Physics, IEEE, The Physics Teacher, Scientific American, etc.), and scientific textbooks depending on their particular project. Early in the first semester, class time is devoted to determining what equipment, funds, library resources (such as journals, books, Internet availability, etc.), software, computers, and teachers are going to be available to the students enrolled in SSR. Samples of typical students' bibliographies can be provided on request.

Course Purpose

The primary purposes of Studies in Scientific Research (SSR) are to (1) provide students with hands-on experience for how scientific research is conducted, (2) give students practice using and applying the scientific method, (3) strengthen student skills for using library journals, scientific papers, internet data bases, and interpersonal communications to research the historical knowledge on a particular topic, (4) encourage students to be self-reliant and to apply the knowledge they have gained in previous courses to solving unique challenges and problems they encounter, and (5) teach students how to organize, manage, evaluate, and document a long term study of their choosing. SSR will stimulate greater enthusiasm for science among the school community at large through sponsoring formal presentations by students enrolled in SSR and by visiting researchers from local universities and industry. Additionally, SSR diminishes the gap between university and high school research programs, thus helping to prepare our students for further study in science when they enter college.

Course Outline

The topics of research in Studies in Scientific Research (SSR) center in the disciplines of physics, biology, chemistry and engineering. Past and present investigations have examined aspects of microbial fuel cells, nonlinear optics, microwave electronics, thermo-acoustic refrigeration, freezing-by-boiling techniques, computational physics, solar-powered devices, hydrogen fuel, electric cars, bio-diesel engines, undersea evolution, chaotic dynamics, electromagnetic devices, and mathematical physics. However, any scientific topic which can generate a variety of questions and which can be built upon from one year to the next presents a viable candidate for investigation. The typical timeline of the course is as follows:
Weeks 1 – 3: students identify an area of interest, investigate recent research in the field, and identify resources available for their own investigations. This phase includes library research through professional journals, selection and study of relevant textbooks, analytical reading of articles in the field, and exploration of experimental equipment.
Weeks 4 – 7: students educate themselves in their chosen field to a considerable depth, on the basis of the resources described above and with the assistance of faculty advisors. All students are expected to go beyond mastery of fundamental knowledge in their chosen field, to become familiar with subtleties and recent developments that are directly relevant to their chosen research topic. During this time students also assemble the equipment required to perform their experiments.
Weeks 8 – 18: students build experimental apparatus and collect data in a systematic manner, following the scientific method.
Weeks 19 – 22: students present the results of their research in ways that strengthen their oral communication and expository writing skills. Students give presentations that are open to the entire school community, and they write journal articles that are published and distributed widely throughout and beyond the school community.

Laboratory Activities

Laboratory activities constitute more than 50% of class time in this advanced course. Students design and often build their own experiments. Scientific laboratory methods are strongly emphasized. Students collect data systematically, analyze their data mathematically, and write reports modeled on professional scientific journal articles. The course is designed to prepare students for the type of laboratory work done at the university level and beyond.

Key Assignments

They must write a proposal of their project for approval and follow through with periodic updates: 1) in-class journal of daily activities, 2) quarterly formal papers on the progress of their research, 3) formal presentations of their work and 4) final scientific paper (to be published in the school's journal of science).

Instructional Methods and/or Strategies

Instructional methods in this course are almost entirely student-centered. The instructor provides a framework of expectations and resources, within which students direct their own learning. In this highly differentiated learning environment, students follow their intellectual interests to establish a research topic, then utilize critical thinking and scientific techniques to test the methodologies and experimental procedures that others have already used in the area of interest. Once a suitable investigation has been defined and a higher degree of understanding of their topic has been achieved, students will work systematically and consistently towards conducting and completing their research project. In collaboration with the instructor, students (1) decide what makes a good problem to investigate, (2) decide whether the problem they have chosen lends itself to investigation within the confines of time and resources available to them in their laboratory, (3) analyze their data to get clear, logical conclusions, and (4) present their findings in a format that is acceptable within the scientific community. Students get a chance to actually apply and practice the scientific method as a means for learning about the topics that interest them. Students are encouraged to consider and plan for experimental uncertainties and, whenever possible, to design and fabricate their own apparatus.

Assessment Methods and/or Tools

The methods of assessment include: 1) Monitoring, on a daily basis, each student’s progress in pursuing meaningful, achievable research in their field of interest. Monitoring will occur through direct observation and through ongoing consultation with the student. In addition, students are required to maintain a journal, in class, which details their daily progress towards completing their investigation. 2) Students are required to submit a quarterly paper describing the progress of their research to date. 3) The teacher will conduct a quarterly progress review (grade evaluation) on each student. 4) At appropriate intervals during the academic year, students may present their research through formal presentations addressed to the school community. These presentations will be announced through the school online portal. 5) At the end of the year, students will produce a scientific paper on their research findings; this report will be published in the school's Journal of Science. Students who explore science research in high school benefit in numerous ways. Most notably, students get to do real science where the answers are not known before the experiment is conducted.