Monday, April 17, 2006

High School Science Research: "Dumbing Down" the Curriculum?

Today's OD had an article about Poland Central School's Science Research Class, where 12 science students in grades 9-12 have an opportunity to earn college credit conducting scientific research on the topic of their choice, perhaps even leading to publication of their work in a scientific journal. In March the students attended a science symposium in Albany where presentations of similar projects were made. One student is doing a study of the inheritability of fingerprint characteristics. Another is researching the negative effects of algae and thermo-pollution on Lake Ontario.

These things sound good . . . In fact, they sound downright impressive! But, always ready to find fault with the conventional wisdom, Fault Lines wonders if there is a negative to all the hoopla. While high-schoolers are capable of doing scientific research, is it appropriate for high-schoolers to be doing scientific research?

Learning logically progresses from the general to the specific, with early-learned generalized knowledge providing the foundation for later studies in specialized areas. It is from a "pinnacle" of specialized knowledge that scientific research embarks to discover the undiscovered. This is why scientific research is normally performed at the college graduate/post graduate level: It is at these levels where a solid foundation for understanding an issue exists.

Does a 9th or 10th grader have the requisite foundation? Probably not. It is unlikely that such a student would have already had Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics -- yet all four disciplines are needed to understand, e.g., the negative effects of algae or thermo-pollution on Lake Ontario. Students are being led to believe they are experts while their foundational knowledge has serious gaps. What does this do for their attitudes?

Scientific research takes a lot of time but only increases knowledge in an extremely narrow subject area. It takes time away from more generalized fare. If the science research supplants a year of Earth Science, Biology, Physics or Chemistry, then the research project actually will create a knowledge gap. A student can major in science in college without knowing whether fingerprint characteristics can be inherited. However, if the student lacks the year of basic chemistry, it will spell trouble because the student will be presumed to already know it. The student having such a knowledge gap might not understand key points of his or her college lectures, making advanced learning more difficult and, perhaps, leading to abandonnment of what would have otherwise been a budding scientific career. In this respect science research "dumbs down" the curriculum by developing "expertise" in an esoteric unimportant specialty at the expense of something fundamental.

For some reason, people love the idea of high-schoolers receiving college credit, but why rush? College and the time to do specialized work will come later . . . . but youth, and the opportunity to sample a wide range of more generalized subjects will not be. Science research may impress parents and boost the self-esteem of the students, but it will produce lop-sided know-it-alls with limited knowledge outside their so-called expertise.

Let's save the scientific research for the higher levels of college and industry, and encourage our high-schools to produce well-rounded individuals.

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RomeHater said...

The number of 12 students in four grades troubles me. It seems like an inordinate amount of effort for a small section of our supposedly cash strapped schools.

And as a former high school genius (I say this because I was not an overachiever and still was near the top of my class) I would definitely say schooling is more important that being a junior researcher.

Now, my potential has been totally squandered and I work in a dead end job with little to look forward to. I say set kids sights lower, especially since most of them will have their job outsourced in five years.

Roman Hokie said...


I, too, found high school to be mediocre and spent a good amount of enery in extracurricular activities (within the auspices of the high school) and a part-time job. I did take 4 semesters of college-level classes that did not involve research or laboratory work - Calculus and Economics.

However, I was not a diligent student in high school yet got the grades. Didn't apply myself nearly enough in college - and I needed to. I still have nightmares that I may not graduate; and yet, I already did.

Anonymous said...

I find your arguments based on some misconceptions. The high school researcher has to take all sciences along with the research class. The students grow their knowledge of the subject with their understanding of science. Most of the students taking research are accelerated and have Earth Science and Biology before taking the research class that starts in 10th grade. They also take statistics before their senior year to understand how to analyze their data. They also learn to research, apply the scientific method more thoroughly than any other science has taught them, orally present, converse woth a mentor in their field at the mentor's level of vocabulary, etc... As a physics and education major, I never had to do anything like this in high school or college and find it very valuable. When we go into the workforce, do we practice all we know or narrow our sights to a specific task? Anyone who ends up in a dead-end job should look inward and stop blaming their education.

Strikeslip said...

That is not my understanding of how the science research projects work, although it may work that way in your particular district. My understanding is that the State allows such research to be used as a substitute for a regular science course.

Regardless, at the tenth grade level, students still have not had course work in all of Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. They have not mastered enough of the basics to understand all the implications of what they may be researching.

While it is true that when in the work force we narrow our sights to a particular field, that is no reason to do that in high school. As an earth science and education major, I had no problem doing scientific research when it was needed for my job, even though I did not have this experience in high school.

High school is probably the last opportunity most students will have to obtain a broad-based education. It is important for them to have this background as "context" for whatever they might do in the future. They should not be deprived of it