Over the past eight years, I've been fortunate to work with some of the more curious high school science students you could hope to meet. These are the type of student who wants to know how and why things work the way they do. Being only in high school, there is still a sense of naivete, but at times an overwhelming need to know. It is one thing to simply tell these students what the answers are, or to point them to a book or article and say 'read about it,' but it is quite another when they want to explore and discover the answer for themselves by doing science. This is something that tends to be lost in science classes - actually doing science.
Lab work is essential in science classes at all levels simply because that is what makes science science. Science tries to answer questions based on physical evidence. If this is absent, there is not so much that separates science from two other great realms of human thought, philosophy and religion, which often ask the same questions as science. Unfortunately, the more teachers I meet from all over and from all grade levels, there seems to be a shortage of lab work happening in science classes. I try to avoid this as much as possible and as time permits (as well as having appropriate resources...this is a major reasopn many teachers have to limit their lab activities). But even typical labs in science classes do not give students a taste of what the science process is like. Often students know the answers to what they are about to do in a 'lab,' and often the labs are of the cookbook variety, with fill in the blanks that guide students through a standard procedure. Depending what the goal of the lab is, that may be fine, but it still does not constitute a more realistic science experience.
What I try to offer as an opportunity any student of mine can take on is independent science research. This means finding a specific question in whatever area of study that a student is interested in, and then providing the chance for the student to become the scientist. He or she will need to read through (ultimately) primary literature in journals to learn what is known about their topic. They will need to design their own experiment and/or computer simulation to set up controlled experiments that will provide data that can be used to find the answer to the question. They need to build the experiment or write the computer code and troubleshoot it. They need to collect the data, analyze it and see if there is something that statistically indicates a potential answer, and draw conclusions that are consistent with the data. And most will then write up a paper on their research and submit it to various competitions, most notably the Intel Science Talent Search (the 'Nobel for high school' since five past winners have actually gone on to win the Nobel). This is the science process. It involves long periods of time to get things working, it takes trial and error and persistence when things inevitably do not go as planned the first few times around. It involves searching for bugs in an apparatus or computer algorithm. And it involves the student being creative and using common sense, as well as flashes of brilliant thinking and analysis. And sometimes it involves pure luck, such as being at the right place at the right time. Some of history's greatest discoveries were made by such 'luck,' such as the discovery of X-rays.
This is, in my mind, the ultimate experience for a high school student, and likely for the college undergraduate student. In my own schooling, I was like the vast majority of high school students and did not know there was any chance at all of doing actual research. I never heard of any contests, simply because my teachers were not aware of them. I did not get a chance to learn what science really is until I was an undergraduate and began to do research in a professor's lab. I quickly learned the excitement as well as the frustration that comes along with the process of discovering the ways of the universe. High school students do not need to be 'gifted' or the top in their class. Often it is the kid who comes across as an average student who does the best work in the lab due to their creativity and work ethic. It is one thing to be able to solve any and all problems on paper, but quite another to try to put together a pysical contraption that will allow you to probe Nature. Some of the most brilliant students, some who are truly gifted individuals, I have worked with did not have what it takes to be a productive scientist (at least experimentalist) in the sense they relied on theoretical knowledge and derivations but could not quite figure out how to get reliable measurements that could test to see if their predictions were correct. This is why it is essential for any teacher who wants to invite students to do research to make the opportunity available to everyone, because there are often surprises in the student who wants to take on the challenge and who will do well and enjoy it.
For those who are interested in learning what type of work high school students are capable of, check out a sample of papers I have put online. There are also links to a few of the major competitions, as well as some notes for how to get started, etc. Slowly but surely, there seems to be another school in the Chicago area I am aware of that has at least one or two students blazing a trail into research, and that is a good sign. As the potential demise of U.S. science and technology leads becomes more prevalent, this is one way to begin training the next generation of American scientists, doctors and engineers. Get to them at an earlier age and begin allowing them to explore the world like real scientists do, prior to college. It is rare, but not out of the question, that a high school student will make an important discovery that professionals have overlooked. These youngsters can be brilliant and clever and creative when given a chance to let loose and break away from the standard world of high school science classes.