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My experience of becoming a research mentor to secondary school students at Prayoga

Dr. Venkata Krishna Bayineni

Senior Researcher, Department of Biology, Prayoga, Bengaluru

Can we create a lab environment in which high school students engage in research with practicing scientists and learn about the scientific process? While I too would have been a sceptic a few months ago, five high school students have changed my view. I'd like to share my experience, as well as a few observations I picked up along the way, so that you, the reader, can decide whether or not mentoring a high school student is worthwhile.

It has been proven that involving high school students in research is beneficial for them. This will not only help students grasp and trust scientific content, but will also encourage them to pursue a science career in the short and long term. Project-based learning has a lot of potential as an instructional approach for developing real inquiry in science project work. Despite its widespread use in other nations, this strategy is relatively new in Indian schools, with little research to back it up. Thus, it is of interest to study how investigative science projects can be implemented in a class at the secondary school level, and how the students respond to this mode of learning.

I started working at Prayoga the mid of 2020. I had switched from a regular teaching system to experiential teaching methods and it was somewhat difficult. It took me three months just to understand experiential learning and a few fundamental terms used in the education research. I knew that I have to work on projects and needed data and publications. So, I attempted to involve high school students who were interested in a real-life research experience. Samvida (a home school) had few excellent students in grades 9 and 10. I had no clue what to expect from a schoolchild and how to involve them in research. We (researchers at Prayoga) interacted with 12 Samvida students about our research projects in various domains and identified their research interests. Then the students were segregated into five groups of two or three members.

A short-term coursework on research methodology and the core subject was introduced to the students to ensure that they develop breadth as well as depth in their understanding of their research field. Also, it is designed to help students in understanding the various research methodology steps adopted by a researcher and deeply explore one specific topic which gives a theoretical background to the field of study. I started my research sessions by giving the student some background on the project— why this study would be interesting. Then, I would send the students home with the research articles related to our work. I would explain that all I wanted them to understand how this information helped the researcher support their hypothesis. Under this direction the students after referring to 3-5 papers— learned to read scientific papers so well that I could give them only the background and then ask them to read the methodology, the goal of the work, materials used, testing their hypothesis, conclusion and gaps in the research. The next step was that this process has to be translated from paper to experiment. To do this I would show the student the basic experimental and safety practices in a microbiology lab (Fig. 1). One of the challenges in a lab is making sure that data is clearly organized. This is of extreme importance with high school students as they are often only associated with the lab for a short period of time and may or may not know how to take good notes. I instructed students to maintain one notebook to record their observations and the methodology used. The better the student understands the project the more relevant their questions and the more useful their observations. One difference between high school students and graduate students, however, is that the ability for critical scientific thinking is less developed and thus needs more cultivating.

Suvratha Herur, a 10th-grade student, worked on a project that studies the in vitro analysis of antibacterial activity of Dombeya wallichii plant extracts against food pathogens and said:

Learning science concepts or topics as a subject and through research experience is very different from one other. As I have experienced both reading about equipment and using it, I can confidentially say that learning science through using it is much more. Identifying a problem, formulating a plan and a solution is a major learning point in research which is also essential in learning other concepts”

Shreeadithya Kashyap, a 9th-grade student, who worked on the same project, said:

I take more precautions while during experiments. Earlier I was not caring about some little things. But now I know that those little things are important. I organise things more neatly in my life which has motivated me to take biology in my future career. The experience was informative, fun and motivating”

Sachin Vashisht, a 10th-grade student, worked on a project that studies the effect of coating seeds with micronutrients and bacterial consortia on stomatal conductance and yield at different stages of plant growth and said:

I have become more curious and more able in terms of handling experiments, problem-solving, coming up with an experiment to verify our hypothesis. Most importantly I have become a more patient and perseverant individual. I have loved taking up in these projects and now I am much more interested in science”

Punya Shree, a 10th-grade student, who worked on the same project, said:

Doing research has improved my thinking skills. I have understood that we always don’t need to get positive results. We should be able to handle both positive and negative results. My patience has increased to a large level. My skills of doing teamwork have also increased a lot. After doing research now I am able to listen and understand other people’s views. Now I am able to work better with chemicals, equipment and I am able to understand the procedures better. I am also able to analyse the procedure and work according to it.”

Dhruva Shankara, a 10th-grade student, who worked on the same project said:

It has impacted me in a unique way. I have learned to use and master some instruments in the lab. It is a whole different world from school. This will surely be a memorable experience and a lesson for life to me. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to work for these projects”

Figure 1: Students at various stages of research

These projects at Prayoga connects student researchers with faculty mentors to work on a research project. The purpose is twofold: to provide students with real-world research activities experience, as well as to encourage faculty mentorship of young researchers. Before arriving at Prayoga, students had no experience with research. We've taught them the fundamentals of research methodology and what kinds of research activities they can perform outside of the classroom. Students have obtained hands-on and cutting-edge experiences that are not available in the regular classroom by participating in research. During Anveshana’s inauguration, students got the opportunity to present their research to luminaries such as Justice Dr. M. N. Venkatachaliah, Dr. K. Kasturirangan and Dr. P.R. Krishnaswamy and prayoga faculty through poster presentations (Fig. 2).

By participating in research activities, they have improved their experimenting and analysing skills. The results of the post-research questionnaires and interviews revealed a considerable shift in participants' perceptions of science and their enthusiasm for it. When students choose science as a career path, these will surely set them apart. In addition to this valuable exposure, students frequently take the lead on their own experiments. Having these powerful experiences also gives them a sense of independence and self-efficacy.

Figure 2: Students during their research poster presentations

Advice for high school students thinking about doing research

I recommend getting involved in research early. Don’t wait!

As much as they can help you discover your passion, research experiences can also assist you to understand what you want to accomplish. Early research experience has been shown to be a significant motivator and has a good impact on academic progress.

For the past one and a half years, I have tremendously enjoyed my experience as a research mentor to high school students working in a biology laboratory at Prayoga. It's been a fantastic opportunity to combine high school science education with original research in a proper laboratory.

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