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More than 40 percent of the 1,500 domestic and international finalists in the Science and Engineering Fair have worked in a lab as part of their research project, and the Society for Science & the Public wants to expand that number. It is developing a program to get more kids into the lab, especially those from geographic areas with few research opportunities. Primarily, that means advice and assistance for students, but the society also may facilitate placing students in researchers' labs.
Many high schools and school districts in the suburbs around New York City have created programs to equip students for research, says Naomi Cook, a science teacher at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. Cook oversees a research class that prepares 25 to 30 students a year to work on a major research project, almost all in a professional lab. Her students read research articles on topics they are interested in and then approach possible mentors. “It is a very independent type of student who is attracted to this type of class,” Cook says.
More schools are placing students in labs because “they want their students to get the training, to successfully compete for science awards, and get into prestigious colleges,” says Shirley Raps, HHMI undergraduate program director at Hunter College and professor and chair of Hunter's Department of Biological Sciences.
The college, part of the City University of New York system, runs an HHMI-funded research preparatory class for students from Manhattan Hunter Science High School, a public high school preparing a diverse group of average students to attend college and major in science. The students attend the class after school three days a week to learn basic lab skills—like making solutions or using a pipetter—and practice research and presentation. Only the top students in the class go on to do lab research. The skills program makes a difference, Raps says. “Six students from the program joined Hunter labs this summer, which is a relatively large group from one high school.”
No one has studied the direct benefits of lab-based research for students, but Columbia University's Samuel C. Silverstein says that lab experiences in high school may have more impact than in college. “There are many kids who are ready for much more powerful experiences than high school biology provides,” says Silverstein, a biologist and medical school professor who runs a science training program for high school teachers.
Cook says that students gain a world of skills from working in a lab: researching a scientific topic, taking organized notes, giving presentations, working with adults, and working independently on a project. “For a lot of [students], it reinforces their desire to go into science.”
Even if students decide that research isn't for them, they will still have a greater appreciation for working in a lab, which Silverstein compares to visiting a foreign country. “Now, for the rest of their lives, they have learned something about the practice of science and about data,” he says.