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Independence in conducting science research can have many benefits for students. Besides leading to a sense of ownership, having a greater voice in their projects gives students the opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed in the real world. So, how can teachers best foster autonomy in their own classrooms? During the Society’s 2019 High School Research Teachers Conference, Kerry O’Brien, a biology teacher at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and Andrea Jydstrup-McKinney, a biotech program leader at West Career & Technical Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada, co-led a session to share strategies to help educators guide students while also giving them research independence.
“As a teacher, it’s about learning where to step in and where to let them run a little bit, differentiating involvement for each student,” Kerry elaborated further.
To kick things off, Kerry and Andrea took a poll: “What aspect of student independence do you find most challenging?” The results were split among two choices—coming up with a project idea (58%) or figuring out how to best carry out experiments (42%). This guided a subsequent discussion about specific steps teachers can take to address those obstacles.
First, educators can survey what equipment is available in their classrooms, letting that dictate what topics would be feasible to explore. “You can also provide them with examples of model organisms they can work with,” added Kerry. Other ways to foster student independence that the group came up with included answering questions with questions, showing students the relevance research has to their lives and setting up a calendar of deadlines for the year.
The next session, “Walk and Talk,” gave teachers a chance to interact in groups. Educators had varying comfort levels with student independence in research projects and they were encouraged to share their experiences with one another. The main themes discussed were:
“I think students really like independence, it’s something they get to brag about to their friends— ‘I have an independent project I’m working on’ or ‘my teacher trusts me’,” Kerry reflected. With the focus of the Society’s Research Teachers Conferences on facilitating the exchange of best practices between teachers, attendees of this breakout session not only learned from Kerry and Andrea, but also contributed their own wisdom. While teachers may find themselves in different circumstances when it comes to guiding student independence in research, all the strategies that were brought up can be tweaked accordingly.