Paths to Science Research in Middle School
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 under the age of 16. However, this article hopes to share a few paths your student might pursue to get into science research at a young age.
While there are avenues into science for all ages, students may need to adjust their expectations to be slightly more realistic than attending Harvard’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 it to attend a summer or local programs that give younger 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 this list of summer programs for middle school students or our list of residential 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. 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.
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 your interest to discuss your 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 for yourself at a local organization may still equip you with basic methods for collecting and testing samples, and you can see how the scientific process is applied to real-world problems.
Gain Skills in a Related Field.
While younger 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. Researchers across many disciplines rely on coding programs, and luckily for younger students, coding courses are often much easier to come by. Learning a programming language, such as Python, R, or Google Earth Engine, may create a solid foundation of knowledge for future research endeavors. 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!
Some additional ideas might be to work on the theoretical background of your research project idea, complete a literature review to learn more about your topic, or even participate in a citizen science project. Like with most science endeavors – it never hurts to think outside the box!
Looking for more inspiration? Try the following articles.