Science Research: : A track for excellence or defeat?
With 10:10 approaching, a majority of students are slumped in the rows of the Chapel, looking aimlessly at the work presented in front of them. Eager to munch on an apple or get their daily dose of goldfish, they wait impatiently for this disruption in their routine to end. Although the typical Chapel presentation is often hastily written the period before, the science research students have taken three years to compile the information they share on stage, yet the appreciation they receive is mediocre.
Ms. Erin Schmitz, Upper School science teacher and the head of science research, was hired in 2009 to implement this program.
“I was given very little guidance around what the program should look like outside of it being a place for students to have an authentic, hands-on research experience,” said Ms. Schmitz. Although there was a lack of direction on how to create the science research program, Ms. Schmitz felt it was important for the it to “span over multiple years in order for students to gain sufficient content knowledge and laboratory skills in their specific field.”
Creating science research was not exactly a seamless process in the beginning, due to both parents and students not being able to grasp the vision and worrying about the workload. “They felt it was unreasonable to expect high school students to work in a university research setting and give up a portion of their summer to do this work,” said Ms. Schmitz.
Students who sign up for this program have to fulfill a minimum of three hours in a lab a week and a minimum of four weeks in the summer. Although this type of dedication can sound unappealing to some, it has become a great experience for students to explore a field of science that is not included in the Packer curriculum and to do so at a higher level of intensity.
“Science research was a way for me to do the research I was doing before in an actual organized process, meet deadlines, and make relationships with mentors more serious,” said Joe Petrini (‘19), one of the eight seniors enrolled in the program.. Joe initially became interested in science the summer before science research began and was able to make connections that helped him get access to a lab in a field he was interested in.
Although Joe was able to benefit from Ms. Schmitz’s vision and learn what long-term study is like, how to work on unanswered questions, and how to work in an adult environment, not all students get this same opportunity.
Georgia Fine (‘19) was one of three students who dropped the program their senior year. Georgia initially joined the program because she was interested in neuroscience, which is a field of science that is not offered at Packer. Although some students are able to find labs easily, this was not the case for Georgia.
“My first year, I sent out 35 emails to different labs to work at. Most people didn’t respond or rejected me,” she said. In addition to dealing with the difficulty of finding a lab, students also need to consider many factors before making their choice. “I didn’t want to be in a lab in deep Queens or in the Bronx, because I live in a super inconvenient location. I didn’t want to spend four weeks of my summer and three hours a week [at a lab] that was super inconvenient,” Georgia explained.
While students who sign up for the science research program are aware of the extensive time commitment, they are less aware of difficulties that accompany finding a lab. Did the program emphasize the difficulty and commitment?
“The program definitely emphasizes the commitment, but I don’t think they take in to account how hard it is to find a mentor as a high schooler. They underplay that. I know for a fact that many students in science research are really dissatisfied with their lab and they chose it because they have to and the work they do are really not compelling or interesting which is really disappointing,” Georgia said.
Ms. Schmitz is aware of the trend of students dropping the program senior year and is eager to find solutions for the students that are placed in mediocre labs.
“We will continue to think about how to manage this better, and I would like to add that I am always eager to hear directly from students about their experiences and their thoughts on ways to improve the program,” she said.
Georgia, who was hesitant to drop the program, has reflected on what she wished it offered: “I think that it should be more optional to continue each year because [you have a] three year commitment [when] you sign up in in freshman year, and your life is completely different junior and senior year.”
Although there are aspects of the science research program that prove challenging for some students, most have been able to dive deep into the topic of their choosing and explore it in a professional environment.
Joe, a strong advocate for science research, said, “Science research has definitely helped me find my niche. I always knew I was interested, but doing the research really emphasized it. If I could choose right now I would want to be a professor and that’s because I love explaining it, and that’s in part with science research.”