By Ryne Emerick, Lebanon R-3

In the fall of 2011, as a second-year teacher, I had nine students trust me enough to sign up for our newly offered Advanced Placement (AP) Biology class. Little did I know, this was the beginning of a perspective-shifting journey about how science looks in the classroom. Two years would pass before I decided to conduct a year-long project in which the AP Biology students would present to classmates, teachers, administrators, parents and even community members.

Through this course, students were able to engage in projects on topics like bacterial sampling, nest predation, river ecology, ecotoxicology, and recycling, to name a few. With the desire to increase the depth of student-led projects, and in collaboration with my department head, we immediately started garnering support to propose a new course. This new opportunity would support high-level, independent scientific research projects free from the constraints of a normal classroom. As the pieces fell into place, we were able to secure a location in the science department — now simply referred to as “The Lab.” We were also able to reach out to a colleague, Chris Reeves, at Camdenton High School nearby. The school had conducted a very successful research program for many years and Reeves was willing to help mentor us through the process.

Another helpful addition was joining a cohort of research teachers through a professional organization dedicated to mentoring teachers and students through the research process called Science Coach. For the new Science Research course to function as intended, it required a paradigm shift towards a student-led classroom along with the heavy collaboration of others outside of the classroom. Throughout the research course, students build knowledge in a scientific field of interest, communicate with experts, develop presentations, analyze scientific data, improve scientific writing and engage in professional experiences. In the second year of the program, still living through major disruption from the pandemic, we were able to celebrate several student successes. Multiple students received awards at the regional Ozark Science and Engineering Fair (OSEF) for their research, which included cash, scholarships and the title of Grand Champion.

The student that received the Grand Champion award, Allison Drennan, was invited as a finalist to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) with nearly 2,000 other finalists from over 200 countries, competing for $5 million in awards and scholarships. Allison was asked about the benefits of a personalized, project-based class and said, “I was able to get to have a choice in what I was researching and it’s a lot more enjoyable … It’s challenging but it’s not boring, so I think that outweighs the toughness of the project.” Allison also was able to turn her project, “Evaluating Cinnamaldehyde as an Antibacterial Agent in a Produce Wash for Leafy Greens,” into a publication with the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI), an open-access journal that publishes original research, written by middle and high school students, in the biological and physical sciences.

When asked about the most surprising thing she discovered while working through the peer review process, Allison said, “All of the reviewers and editors were incredibly supportive. There were a lot of things that needed to be fixed with my paper, but all of their feedback was constructive and helped me greatly.”

Allison was also asked how she will use the knowledge and skills she gained from the student research project and the publication process. She said, “I hope to use these new skills to prepare me for my future adult career. I want to work as a food technologist in research and development for new products. People in this field are driving the new research behind better food products, and this class is giving me a lot of the skills that I will need in a research-based career.”

Another student, Grace Johnson, experienced success this past year as well. Grace applied for the opportunity to receive a $1,000 stipend from the Science Coach group to conduct her research for the 2021-2022 school year. She also pursued publication of her work on the “Application of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi to Inhibit Nitrogen Uptake of Weeds Within Crop Fields” in the Journal of Emerging Investigators. Grace was asked about the peer-review process and responded, “The most surprising thing I learned was how much of a difference little things make in how your paper reads. Small formatting and word choice decisions make a huge difference in the readability of a scientific paper. The reviewers made many great comments on how to make sure your results are scientifically accurate. These insights about last years’ project have been very helpful in designing my project for this year.” Grace was also named Grand Champion at the Ozark Science and Engineering Fair, and will be competing as a finalist at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair later in May.

Learning about various disciplines of science and the experiences that transpire through the high school research program is a benefit to both students and teachers. Students that find an opportunity to collaborate alongside other researchers and mentors will potentially have a life-changing experience and hopefully translate to a career in a STEM field. My hope is that through high-level research, students can understand the importance of critical thinking, application of knowledge and communication skills that are imperative in our society today.