“I Love Science!”: Fostering Independent Thinking and Research at HHS

When asked why she was interested in taking the “Research Methods in Science” course Freshman Ashley Nee replied without hesitation: “I love science!”

While many of the students in the course share her enthusiasm for science and engineering, others, according to teacher Devon Grilly, are also motivated by the opportunity to do something independent and work on something they care about.

Passion for the subject, combined with an independent, self-starting attitude, is crucial for this course in particular because it does not fit into the traditional high school schedule. There are very few set meeting times. Instead, course materials and resources are shared through an online course management system (Canvas). There is no classroom. Instead, there is a science workroom where students can go on their own time to design and carry out their experiments. The hybrid course is designed to support students as they develop, research, and complete their projects on their own time outside of their regular schedule of courses.

As Ms. Grilly notes, it takes a certain kind of student to thrive in this course. Ideally, students should have a high level of intrinsic motivation and be comfortable working independently. While Ms. Grilly is available to support the students and, through the online course site, she provides an abundance of online resources, it’s a very self-directed learning opportunity. As she explains, “The motivation comes from them. Is there something they care about and they are curious about, and are they able to follow through without a teacher telling them what to do at each step?”

Students know this from the outset. Yet, as Ashley Nee admits, “Sometimes it can be difficult fitting science fair stuff into my schedule because of school and other commitments I have, but it’s not too bad.” Plus, she adds, “It’s just taught me to manage my time better, and be more efficient and focused. Since there were no weekly meetings, it also gave more freedom to do my project on my own time.”

Senior Colin Staab, an experienced Science Fair participant and winner of this year’s HHS school competition, explains that you need to be good at managing your time. While the time commitment can vary depending on the experiment or engineering problem a student decides to tackle, the few weeks before Science Fair “can be pretty stressful and demanding.” Colin notes, “It’s challenging for those couple weeks, but I was aware of that when I signed up and it’s mostly my choice to spend the amount of time on my project that I do.”

Ashley feels that this intense time is actually the “best part of the Science Fair” —  “doing research and conducting your experiment.” The Science Fair itself turns out to be “fun,” she explains,  “because judges’ opinions and critiques are beneficial, and give you ideas of how to further expand your project.”

HHS graduates who participated in Science Fair remember this as a formative part of their education. Lauren Blake (HHS Class of 2008), now a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Human Genetics, recently commented on the impact of Science Fair on her educational trajectory:

“Because of my experience with research during high school, I was able to enter my first choice lab at Duke and thrive there. The curiosity, critical thinking skills, persistence, and independence that I gained through [Science Fair] were invaluable to me as I completed research for three years, publishing a first author paper in mBio during my senior year of college, winning the 2015 Raymond W. Sarber Award for Undergraduate Research sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology, and graduating with Distinction.”

Colin, who is looking forward to starting his freshman year in college this Fall, is confident that his own Science Fair experience will also help him succeed: “Not many people going into college have already conducted a full science experiment independently or have written a full formal research paper.  I feel very prepared for what lies ahead of me in the science career path.”

To learn more about Science Fair and the “Research Methods in Science” course at HHS, please contact Devon Grilly: dgrilly@hopkinton.k12.ma.us


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