The Stem Generation

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Science education is vitally important, but there is a persistent struggle to find the best way to teach it. In Independent Science Research (ISR), students tap into their creative potential to develop innovative experiments and discover their inner scientist.
As a self-driven course, ISR requires students to choose a year-long project to research. At the end of the year, they present their findings in the annual Regional Science and Engineering Fair. This self-direction gives increased accountability to the students. “What I like about it is that it doesn’t necessarily confine you to one aspect of science,” Senior Sam Hinton said. “There are so many different ways you can go in this class.”
For her project, Hinton is testing the efficacy of three depression diagnosis tests. She intends to distribute the tests among two AP Psych classes and record student responses. ISR grants Hinton the ability to explore such a serious topic, an opportunity that she wouldn’t have had in other science classes.
“My project is actually on something that’s not even completely science related, it’s more in the social sciences area,” Hinton said. “[The class] gives me a lot of room to work in that field while still getting that science credit that I need in order to graduate.”
ISR permits students to explore any topic that interests them, so long as it encourages them to engage in research and experimentation methods.
Classes like ISR are a part of an effort across Loudoun County Public Schools to improve “STEM literacy” among high schoolers, preparing them for the 21st century. Senior Rachel Campbell, working with junior Jessica Lu, believes that the program offers an unmatched approach to research science.
“It’s not like a lab experiment in any of your other classes, where you already know the outcome. You are actually looking to find out what would happen, so you’re doing actual research,” Campbell said.
Their project seeks to determine the effectiveness of native African spices in killing parasitic roundworms. The purpose is to find alternative treatments for parasitic illnesses, preventing their severe and painful symptoms. With the help of the instructors, Campbell and Lu feel capable of going out on their own to investigate such an intriguing idea.
This inquiry-based classroom experience is part of a commitment across LCPS to train students to be leaders, creators and collaborators.
“I think science lends itself specifically to the development of that skillset of problem solving, so [the students] are developing ways to look at problems and apply those methods to other situations, and that doesn’t necessarily have to stay in science,”Science Department Co-Chair Erin Wissler said.
Wissler first became involved in the ISR program five years ago, two years after the class was first offered. According to Wissler, growing class sizes have presented more varied ideas and projects, particularly in the area of computer science.
“I think people who are in high school today have had a lot more experience using computers and applying them to educational research and to projects that they’re working on that it’s become a much more natural part of [their] everyday life,” Wissler said.
Educators like Wissler and Biology teacher Suzanne Lohr emphasize the importance of the skills fostered in scientific research to the success of future problem solvers. In her thirty years as a science teacher, Lohr has observed a shift in the way science is taught, whereby students are given greater responsibility to create their own investigative methods.
According to her, high school classes are increasingly “inquiry based.” Lohr sees this development as highly encouraging, demonstrating the priority placed on science education.
“If we’re going to keep up with other countries or be able to solve so many of the scientific problems that are going on in the world, we need to have the new generation of students being able to really think outside the box,” Lohr said. “If we’re getting them to think scientifically, hopefully they will be the new problem solvers for the future. ”

This article first appeared in our December issue of our news magazine.

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