Ten highly motivated sophomores and juniors have immersed themselves in the world of scientific research this spring as part of Blair’s new “Foundations of Integrated Science Research (ISR)” elective. Throughout the semester-long course, students are reading scientific literature with a critical eye and developing an understanding of how scientific experimentation is implemented, while concurrently investigating a topic or question of their own choosing. By the end of the year, each member of the class will have developed an independent research proposal and submitted it to the ISR Committee, and some may pursue independent research during their junior and senior years in the ISR I and II courses.
Blair’s science teachers developed the ISR program, including the foundations course, during the School’s 2018 summer Faculty Institute. With extensive renovations and upgrades underway in Bogle Hall—and a three-story addition to the science facility now approaching completion—faculty members mapped out plans to create new electives, reshape existing electives, and integrate additional technology into labs and classes at every level of the science curriculum. The Bogle Hall addition includes laboratory space dedicated to long-term research, and this is the future home of Blair’s ISR program.
At present, science department chair Kelly Hadden and her “Foundations of ISR” students meet several times per week in a soon-to-be-renovated Bogle Hall classroom, where they delve into scientific literature and hone in on their research topics. “Students are learning how to find reputable, peer-reviewed articles and looking closely at research design and methodology, data and conclusions,” Mrs. Hadden said. “They are also realizing the importance of questioning what they are reading and thinking about how they can use what they’ve found in research of their own.”
Students’ potential topics for independent research run the gamut of the sciences, and, in many cases, their initial ideas for experimentation were on a grand and all-inclusive scale. Mrs. Hadden has worked one-on-one with them to help narrow their focus to questions or areas that are feasible to study at the high school level, as well as figure out the instrumentation, technical lab skills and materials they might need to conduct their research.
Kate Gerdsen ’20, who plans to determine the effect that varying concentrations of caffeine have on water fleas (Daphnia magna) and whether increased heart rate due to caffeine can be passed on to subsequent generations, appreciated her conversations with Mrs. Hadden and her classmates as she developed her topic. “We presented our ideas in class so that we could share critical feedback with one another to help further our research,” she said. “This was an enlightening experience, as all of my classmates are so knowledgeable. It has been really interesting to listen to and learn about everyone’s proposal.”
As the semester progresses, students will write their research proposals, a process Mrs. Hadden compared to writing a grant proposal for real-world scientific research. “Students will follow a set of guidelines, and they will be required to include the specific questions they will address, their methods of experimentation, the materials and instrumentation required, and more,” she said. Students will also create a poster delineating their proposal for Blair’s mid-May Science Poster Expo and present it before the teachers and administrators on the ISR Committee, as well as submit their written proposal. “Even if students don’t continue in the ISR program, this will have been a great experience for them,” Mrs. Hadden noted. “They should become much more comfortable and confident in their ability to explain scientific data.”
Halfway through the semester, Eric Zhang ’21 described “Foundations of ISR” as unlike any other class he has taken at Blair. “It’s very interesting and almost completely self-guided: We come up with our own research topic, independent and dependent variables, and ways to test those variables,” he observed. “I’m taking this class to strengthen my research skills and explore what I’m interested in—right now, that’s researching ways we can slow down the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Mrs. Hadden is excited about the work all her innovative, inquisitive ISR students are undertaking this semester. “They’re each completely immersed in their unique topics, yet the atmosphere in class is so collaborative as they support one another and seek guidance from one another,” she said. “These students are way beyond their years and definitely the scientists of the future.”