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Teaching the Fourth ‘R’ of Science Education: Research

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Teaching the Fourth ‘R’ of Science Education: Research
A partnership program between the Bronx High School of Science and Elsevierintroduces students to the world of scientific research through ScienceDirect.

Last year, Kathleen, then a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science (NY), decided to research sleep patterns of the platypus. Her classmate John chose to study heart disease, and sophomore Daniel elected to prepare a report on the Hubble Space Telescope.As with all students at our school, these three were required to use primary sources (i.e., peer-reviewed scientific studies) as part of their assignments. Teaching students the difference between secondary and primary sources,and how to find and read journal articles,is an important part of the curriculum at the Bronx High School of Science. These skills are even emphasized in a course in research literacy, which is a requirement for all students.

Until recently, however, the requirement to include journal articles in student research posed a difficult dilemma for them. Subscriptions to scientific research journals are expensive, and even science-oriented high schools like ours typically subscribe to only a small number of science journals. So students either had to choose from two or three possible research topics, or they had to travel to a regional research library to find an appropriate journal covering an alternative topic they wanted to investigate.

But thanks to a partnership with Elsevier (www.elsevier.com), the largest publisher of scientific journals, the Bronx High School of Science has online access to over 1,800 research publications across virtually all fields of science. This is part of a program in which Elsevier provides selected science high schools with free access to ScienceDirect (www.sciencedirect.com), the company’s online journal portal of science, technology, and medicine full-text and bibliographic information. With our access to ScienceDirect, students can find relevant primary source material on virtually any topic they’re interested in—from the sleeping habits of the platypus to the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope.

A Scientific Rewards Program
The Elsevier initiative, called the ScienceDirect High School Access Program, has particular meaning for the Bronx High School of Science because it was founded by one of our alumni, John Carroll, who is Elsevier’s director of business systems technology. “We see the program as a way to reward and perpetuate excellence in scientific study among tomorrow’s scientists,” says Carroll. “By providing students with access to the most current scientific information, we can help them build the kinds of research skills they’ll need in college and beyond.”

The Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, NY,were the first two schools to participate in the Elsevier program, which was launched in 1999. In order for schools to participate in the program they must be invited by Elsevier, which selects schools based on measures of student achievement in science and math, such as their number of AP students, National Merit Scholars, and winners of leading science competitions like the Intel Science Talent Search. Elsevier currently provides ScienceDirect to about a dozen schools nationwide.

At our school, ScienceDirect plays an important role in students’ research projects, but it is not the first place that teachers direct them. Journal articles, after all, are written for scientists, not high school students. Therefore, we tell students to begin their research with secondary sources such as Science News or the weekly science section in The New York Times. These sources, which cover science for general audiences, help students define their topic, and provide them with foundation for their subject in language they can easily understand.

The other big benefit that students get from starting with articles in these kinds of publications is that they learn the difference between secondary sources, which are articles written by journalists about the work of scientists, and primary sources, which are articles written by scientists about their own work. Later, armed with the information they read about in the secondary sources, students begin using ScienceDirect to look for pertinent primary sources about their topic. Typically, they begin by searching for articles written by the scientists quoted in the news articles they read. The ScienceDirect search engine also lets students browse specific journals or subject areas easily, and enables them to search for articles by subject keywords.

Scientists in Training
Their initial experience with peer-reviewed research articles often takes students by surprise. First, of course, they are struck by the unfamiliar vocabulary and writing style of the articles. They also have to get used to the standard format in which the articles are written. Thus, the journal articles that the students collect from ScienceDirect become very useful vehicles for teaching them about the language of science and the universal format of scientific communication.

More significantly, though, students are frequently taken aback by the lack of definitive answers in these articles. They tend to want facts and conclusions; they expect their questions to be readily answered in the journal articles. It is an expectation that is fostered by the way science news is commonly treated in the mainstream media. One of the biggest benefits of giving students access to scientific journals is that they begin to see science as an ongoing, open-ended process of observation and investigation, and they learn the value of that process.

Typically, students begin their review of a journal article by reading the abstract and introduction, then writing down any terms they don’t understand and looking up the definitions.We also encourage students to develop flowcharts from the articles to show how one thing relates to another. And, perhaps most beneficial, the students have to identify the steps of the author’s experiment, which helps them apply the scientific process to their own experiments in school.

In addition to giving our students firsthand experience with published scientific research, our school’s participation in Elsevier’s ScienceDirect High School Access Program provides students with a springboard to direct contact with professional scientists. For instance, a student often gets so interested in a topic that she will send an e-mail to the author of a journal article to ask additional questions. The scientists almost always respond enthusiastically to these inquiries, and we’ve seen several instances where a continuing dialog evolves.

Even for students at the Bronx High School of Science who don’t have the opportunity to communicate directly with journal authors, the journal research they read through ScienceDirect serves as a link between their work and the world of professional science. Our students realize that what they do every week in biology lab is just a simplified version of what actual scientists do every day as part of their work, and that someday they may bedoing that kind of work, too.

Frances Moss is a biology teacher at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City. J.D. Solomon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer and editor.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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