For over 25 years, we have helped K–12 students select and complete science research projects through a unique community-wide program in the Kansas City area. The program consists of volunteers from the medical, professional, academic, and business communities who serve as mentors to science students, judge science fairs, and help assist students interested in science. The program is open to all students in the metropolitan area, but in spite of our efforts, the number of participants has declined significantly in recent years. From our standpoint, it seems that the number of students working on science research projects has declined.
After some investigation, we identified several possible reasons for the decline. Parental support for science and for our program, which had been strong for decades, has recently decreased. This change may be due to the increase in alternative activities available to youth. Another reason for the decline may be that science projects are too time-consuming and expensive to both students and teachers.
The value of science research projects must be emphasized. At the suggestion of the superintendent of the Kansas City Missouri School District, we looked at the district’s curricular requirements and the impact that could be provided by student science research projects. We found that conservatively such projects could potentially have a positive impact on about half of their stated curricular requirements. The full value, however, should not be limited to helping the mandated curriculum; benefits exist that accrue directly to students. For example, a positive result on a science project can produce a sense of accomplishment for the student. Completing a science project offers a constructive activity versus the potential for getting into trouble when there is nothing better to do.
Part of the challenge in any alternative action plan is to overcome the perception that science projects must be complex and difficult. Another perception is that science research is only for those already interested in science. Is that the only value gained from a science research project? There are a significant number of students who will likely never go to college. If there are considerable benefits to science projects, should those benefits be denied to those who do not continue their education beyond high school? Do we need a paradigm shift? Are there values to student science research projects that need to be considered when deciding whether to include them at some point in a student’s educational training before college? Teachers should consider the following benefits not necessarily related to careers in science.
First, science projects represent an alternative learning path in which students must use the skills they have developed previously in other disciplines. For example, students must use their composition skills in writing a protocol and the results of their research; math skills in compiling and presenting their data; and research skills in using the library and internet to gain more in-depth information
Second, the scientific process students use involves developing skills that relate to critical path thinking. This process is key in order for students to successfully complete their projects. To be successful, students must learn the importance of seeking quality in the facts that they use and in the volume of data necessary to draw valid conclusions. The process students learn provides them with a pattern they can use throughout their lives to make quality decisions.
Finally, the learning process in doing a science project is vastly different from most of the student learning acquired in other K–12 courses. Learning in other courses often is based on the ability to recall stored information when taking a test. While some recall skills are involved in science projects, the proposed learning process focuses on the use of previously learned skills rather than presented material.
We are seeking a feasible economical path to expand the availability of science projects to more students to offer these opportunities to them. Hopefully we can establish and prove the value of these projects.
Al Frisby is a high school science teacher at Liberty High School in Liberty, MO; and Dennis McCurdy is a veterinarian and research mentor from Overland Park, KS.