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Paths to Research for Young Students

Gifted Education and Support

Many of the gifted students the Davidson Institute serves express an early interest in one or more of the STEM fields. It is not uncommon to have a highly gifted student younger than 14 express their desire to attend a hands-on human autonomy lab or want to experiment with genetic treatments. However, lab opportunities can be difficult to come by for younger students, especially those in middle school or even elementary school. Sure, you might get access to marshmallow launchers to experiment with basic physics, but hands-on experiences in fully equipped laboratories are rare for students before high school. However, this article hopes to share a few paths your student might pursue to get into science research at various ages. 

While there are avenues into science for all ages, students may need to adjust their expectations to be slightly more realistic than attending, say, a university’s molecular biology lab. Laboratory work often involves hazardous chemicals or equipment, and institutions are more likely to consider younger students as a liability, as they value your student’s safety first. Another reason for the scarcity of options is due to the hierarchical nature of these programs. A junior or senior in high school might be viewed as needing these lab skills more than a twelve-year-old as part of their imminent college-bound journey. 

Younger students may have innovative ideas, but it will be difficult for them to gain the experience needed to pursue advanced research right off the bat – don’t give up though! Here are a few ways they might navigate the opportunities available to them. 

Go Through Established Programs. 

One of the more obvious choices is to attend a summer or local program that give students access to laboratory facilities. Your student will likely have to follow their program design, rather than conduct their own research, but these programs can give them lab skills and connections to build upon. You might try looking through our list of programs by topic as a place to start. 

Talk to Your School’s Science Teacher. 

Working out of the school chemistry or biology lab might not be ideal but, if your student is able to, they might be able to conduct smaller pilot studies that pave the way for larger projects under the supervision of their school’s science teacher (or, if your elementary or middle school doesn’t have a lab, you could reach out to the high school’s science department). Going this route may provide the student with additional one-on-one support from their school that might be difficult to receive in a larger competitive program. Your school doesn’t need a fancy state of the art lab either – even rural schools may have access to some materials that would be difficult to purchase otherwise, and teachers often want to help students find creative solutions to challenges. 

You can use the yearly science fair as an opportunity to explore an area of scientific interest as a family. “Science Fair as a Family Affair” gives some tips and ideas for making the science fair engaging for the whole family. In addition, ScienceBuddies has a blog post detailing some hands-on resources for science fair projects. Though many science competitions are geared toward high schoolers at the moment, Science Olympiad recently expanded their offerings to include elementary aged students. Their website now includes rule guidebooks, checklists, and planning guides. They also have resources focused on keeping Science Olympiad as a club at the school, if that’s more your student’s preferences. If your school doesn’t host a science fair or have a current science club, that may be something that you could organize by yourself or with other parents in the school community. 

Subscriptions 

Subscription boxes like EEME, Groovy Lab in a Box, Little Passports: Science Expeditions, Spangler Science Club, and KiwiCo. come with all of the materials for children to complete projects monthly. Depending on your student’s age and the projects in the kit, you may be able to complete this as a family, or your student may be able to do some science projects on their own, with minimal supervision. In addition, Science Olympiad has materials for sale so that students can replicate the competition experiments. 

Magazine subscriptions to publications like Make Magazine and Cricket Media can help to keep your child engaged and expose them to contemporary ideas and projects that involve engineering. Both subscription boxes and magazines can help introduce them to different areas of focus. 

Tumble is a science podcast for children that explores the process of science and discovery. Alie Ward’s science podcast Ologies, where she interviews scientists about their fields, has a children’s version of the show called Smologies. Smologies is kid safe, and the episodes are shorter than the original Ologies interviews so that kids get answers to the questions they really want to know. 

Find a Mentor in the Community. 

Science mentors can come from many different places outside of big state or Ivy League schools. Community colleges often have dual-enrollment options and a central mission to serve their community, which may minimize some of the red tape for younger students who want to access the campus. Talk to the admissions office and reach out to faculty in the department of interest to discuss possible research ideas and what might be possible. While it is aimed at undergraduates, the following tips for applying to a lab are still relevant for those wanting to put their best foot forward when reaching out. 

If the local college is telling you “No,” try asking elsewhere. Many non-profit organizations work with scientists in the community, especially in environmental fields, and there are a number of government agencies that employ a range of scientists as well, such as the Bureau of Land Management or the Department of Agriculture or even your local water treatment center. Creating an internship at a local organization may still equip your student with basic methods for collecting and testing samples, and they can see how the scientific process is applied to real-world problems. 

Check out “Finding an Advanced Tutor or Mentor for Your Gifted Child” for more tips. 

Learn from Others in the Field 

One way to learn more is to ask professionals in the field. Several organizations like Skype a Scientist or NASA’s Ask a Scientist are wonderful ways to connect with professionals. 

Roadtrip Nation is a documentary series that follows different college students as they interview successful professionals on their path to where they are now. Some STEM related documentaries include: 

You can read about the research paths that other young people have taken in the following Science News Explores articles: 

Gain Skills in a Related Field. 

While students may struggle to get into a research lab, there are opportunities in related fields where they can gain skills that will set them up for success down the road. For example:  

  • Researchers across many disciplines rely on coding programs, and luckily for students, coding courses are often much easier to come by. Learning a programming language, such as Python or  R may create a solid foundation of knowledge for future research endeavors. If your student is interested in taking a coding class, one place to search for options is the Online Coding Program Comparison chart. 
  • If your student has an artistic streak, could they take a drawing class? Engineers, archaeologists, and natural sciences researchers often use drawings in their fieldwork. You can look for drawing classing locally (at art stores, libraries, and art collectives), or you can use online resources that are free or low cost like Skillshare and YouTube. 
  • Although it may sound counter-intuitive, working on your writing skills can also be an excellent use of a summer for the future scientist – those research papers don’t write themselves after all! For students looking to take a writing class, check out our Language Arts Online Comparison chart. Another idea might be to work on the theoretical background of your research project idea and complete a literature review to learn more about your topic.  

Get into the Community. 

You can also look for citizen science projects for your student to participate in. “Research at Home: Citizen Science” has a collection of resources for families looking to do citizen science, including a toolkit with a step-by-step guide for the design and evaluation of the project. Like with most science endeavors – it never hurts to think outside the box! 

If your city has a maker space or art collective, consider getting your student involved in a class or group there. These may be good places to get involved locally with likeminded people and projects at all skill levels. They frequently have different types of equipment and safety classes, so community members can learn different skills. Common classes or groups at makers spaces and collectives include art builds for large scale installations, community service projects, and artisanal crafting. Many of the fine motor, spatial, and group social skills can be beneficial to students looking to participate in research in the future. If your city doesn’t have a maker space, many cities do still have maker faires. 

Community based groups like 4-H, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts have expanded their programming to include science focused activities, camps, and badges. If your gifted student is interested in science, maybe getting involved with one of these (or similar) groups may help them to gain some experience working with their community, and possibly some leadership skills.  

If you need more inspiration for talent development, check out the other resources in the Davidson Institute Talent Development Guide. 

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