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High Schoolers Get to Experience Real-World Scientific Research

High Schoolers Get to Experience Real-World Scientific Research
HRI student Hannah Hansen presents her research project at Austin High School.

In UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences, students dive into scientific research right from the start through the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). Now a new program, the High School Research Initiative, is allowing high school students to do the same.

The pioneering HRI program provides high school students the opportunity to initiate and engage in real-world research experience with faculty and graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin, and potentially experience similar gains.

With more than 330 K-12 schools surrounding the University, the potential for collaboration with schools is significant. In particular, high school students and teachers are eager to learn what happens within the Forty Acres, and University faculty enthusiastically seek outreach collaborations, especially related to STEM research.

Funded by the NIH Science Education Partnership Award, the High School Research Initiative (HRI) provides a dual-enrollment science research course. It was launched at Austin High School in the 2016-2017 school year, as a dual-enrollment course that's a departure from a traditional science lab course. The project-based course does not give a single test or provide many lectures. In fact, when HRI students reported the similarities between this course and their other courses, one student said: "Well, I mean it's in a classroom. There aren't a whole lot of similarities after that."

Engaging high school students in active and experiential learning, the first half of the course offers open-inquiry research, providing opportunities for students to ask and answer their own questions in a scientific manner. This portion of the course resembles the nationally recognized UTeach-offered Research Methods course. In the first year of the program, students proposed projects as varied as comparing running track times for different start methods (blocks vs. no block) to measuring the damage of dry ice on chicken skin.


The UT collaborative research work begins during the second half of the course. Paired with a CNS Freshman Research Initiative faculty member, HRI students engaged in research with similar research objectives as the UT students in the FRI. The first FRI collaboration of this type began in January of 2017, involving two FRI labs: Dr. Josh Beckham's Virtual Drug Screening lab and Dr. Elizabeth Ilardi's Bioactive Molecules lab. The research collaboration involved drugs development, and answering questions such as: "What is a drug? How do we know it is effective?" After paring down the collaborations to a single FRI lab, the HRI class continued the partnership with Dr. Beckham's molecular biology and biochemistry collaboration. HRI students prepare proteins and naturally occurring protein variants for use in drug efficacy assays.

One of the features of the HRI program is that the high school teachers teach the course at their campuses, thus permitting the program to scale-up and meet the demand for the popular course. Teachers receive an intensive three-week professional training over the summer, which is led by UTeach master teacher and program coordinator Denise Ekberg. Ekberg's vast experience in teaching pre-service and in-service teachers in the sciences, as well as the years of developing the research course and the professional training, led to "one of the best PD's I've had as a science educator," according to the AHS teacher, Jennifer Giannou-Moore. The training was taught through the lens of a student, asking the teacher to conduct the research like a high school student and then reflect back on the work as a teacher. The professional training included establishing partnerships in the collaborating FRI research lab. This included discipline- and technique-specific training in the area.

However, the HRI students are not limited to their campuses, and instead visit UT Austin numerous times over the year they are taking the course. Walking side-by-side with UT students, faculty, and staff, HRI students toured numerous UT laboratory facilities during the first year of the program. After stopping by the turtle pond, students toured the fish laboratory of Dan Bolnick, an evolutionary biologist in the Department of Integrative Biology, whose work inspired the statistics unit curriculum within the HRI class. Additionally, HRI students had the opportunity to tour the X-ray crystallography facility, laboratories, and classrooms, as well as visited numerous FRI peer mentors and students.


After taking the HRI course, students walk away not only with authentic experiences in scientific research but also with numerous presentation experiences. Within the first year of the program, the science fair returned to Austin High School, providing the HRI students a platform to present their open-inquiry results. All 10 participants in the AHS science fair were HRI students. The success of this event was followed by the HRI students presenting their research at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. Placing second in his division, one HRI student moved on to present his research at the State Science Fair. The practices of science communication and presentation skills continued, as students presented two group posters at the UT Undergraduate Research Forum, with additional showcase events planned at UT and Austin High School.

While nearing the end of Year 1 of the HRI, plans are moving forward to expand the offerings of the dual-enrollment course. Year 2 approaches with plans for the HRI course to be offered at five high schools:

  • Austin High School in AISD with an HRI veteran teacher
  • St. Michael's Catholic Academy, a private school with an FRI collaborator as the teacher
  • St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School, a private school with a UT alum as the teacher
  • Travis High School, in AISD, with a UTeach alum as the teacher

The HRI Year 2 recruitment would not have been as successful without the efforts of the HRI advisory board members, which are local and national leaders. The teacher recruitment efforts thus far have involved recruiting teachers in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and from UTeach alumni and organizers' personal networks of teachers. The AISD recruitment process primarily involved participation in an AISD Science Department meeting, as well as discussions with the AISD Science Supervisor, Charlie Gutierrez. The UTeach alumni have been targeted through informational emails. An all-day HRI Open House at the UT campus hosted interested teachers and administrators to learn more about the program and the research course. Because of the success of the HRI course and the recruitment efforts, there is now a waitlist for interested high schools to participate in the popular course.

For more about the High School Research Initiative, visit https://cns.utexas.edu/hri

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

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