A Guide For Pursuing Independent Scientific Research Opportunities In High School

Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Nikola Tesla: These famous scientists are known for their innovation and intellectual curiosity. For students who also dream of becoming an innovator, nothing prevents them from researching the research while still in high school through an Independent Research Project (IRP). If done well and presented appropriately in a college application, the project can help a student stand out from the crowd.

According to US News and World Report, “Students who have impressive personal projects that they work on independently often impress colleges because their commitment to going it alone instills initiative, self-discipline, and originality.”

IRPs can demonstrate critical thinking, initiative, and a sense of research. These projects can be used to differentiate the student from their peers, especially in STEM-related disciplines, which is often difficult to achieve.

Students can conduct an independent research project to stand out when applying to competitive schools.

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Opportunities to pursue an independent research project

There are many different ways that students can pursue an independent research project. For many, an easy entry point is having access to resources in their high school, either through a research-based class or independently from a teacher.

Lindsey Conger, an independent college advisor at Moon Prep, often leads her students to reach out to local professors to work with them on their current research projects. Recently, one of her students successfully teamed up with a university professor to start a project on how jet lag affects intelligence and plans to finish a research paper by the end of summer. The long-term goal is to have this paper published in a high school research journal.

Many students may prefer a more structured environment by attending a research-oriented camp, while highly motivated students may choose to pursue a project independently. Whichever path students choose, the end goal should be the same: get published in a high school research journal and showcase your work.

Research projects through your high school

One of the first choices is whether your high school already has a research program or research-based curriculum that you can refer to to start a project. This approach has a built-in benefit in that the student can take advantage of the school’s resources and tutoring. Some high schools offer research courses with an independent project component that can be submitted to local competitions for science fairs. Students who win their school’s science fair should always try to take their performance to the next level and compete at the state or national fair. By always looking for ways to continuously advance their projects, students can demonstrate their motivation and skills to universities.

Other ways to school for conducting an IRP are AP Capstone. This College Board program consists of two Advanced Placement (AP) courses: AP Seminar and AP Research. Both courses lead the students through a research project, write a scientific paper and give a public presentation.

The AP seminar, a year-long course, encourages students to engage with real-world topics. By the end of this course, students will have completed both a team project and an independent paper and presentation. AP Research allows students to explore any research topic or topic they are interested in. After a year of research, students will write a 4,000 to 5,000 word paper on the subject.

Work with a college professor

Finding a mentor to work with you on a research project can give you access to resources, guide you through the data collection process, and draw conclusions.

One way to find a mentor is to reach out to college professors who are researching or studying a similar topic that you would like to pursue.

To begin with, students can do the following:

  • Make a list of your future career interests.
  • Start by documenting potential research topics related to your interests.
  • Check the websites of the faculties of local universities for the latest research studies by professors and PhD students.
  • Reach out to faculty members whose research interests you (a sample email is provided below as a guide).
  • Include your activity resume so faculty can learn more about you and your interests.

Example email:

Dear Dr. Andrews,

My name is James Smith and I am a current junior in Central High School. I am aiming for a major in microbiology during my studies and aim to expand my knowledge in this area through practical research in the field of immunology. I have attended numerous challenging courses and received an ‘A’ in AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Calculus, and AP Physics. As a native of Texas, I have long been familiar with the research resources at the University of Texas, and I find your current research on tuberculosis particularly fascinating. I would love the opportunity to learn more about your research. I would be very happy to have the opportunity to discuss potential collaboration opportunities. Is it possible to arrange a quick phone call this week?

Thank you for your time and consideration,

James Smith

Take part in a structured research program

Students may be reluctant to start an independent project because the process overwhelms them. Choosing the right topic, finding resources, or securing a mentor can be daunting tasks. Also, because students combine rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, and preparation for standardized exams, it can be difficult to gain momentum.

Hence, STEM-focused research programs can be a more structured route to an independent research project. Students are mentored through a program by an experienced instructor and may even earn college credits at times. Students can continue their research after completing the course or use their newly discovered skills as a stepping stone for other research projects.

Rising Researchers is a research-intensive online class designed to introduce students to the principles of scientific research. Before the start of the class, students receive a laboratory kit with a microscope. While this is an online class, students don’t sit in front of a zoom screen and study statically. Through small group discussions and hands-on experiments at home, students immerse themselves in the microbial world and learn from a leading scientist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Many students who complete the Rising Researchers program have their independent research published in scientific journals.

By completing interactive experiments, students will master the proper use of the scientific method to answer a research question, make observations, and interpret results. Students can then use what they learned during the program to take their research to the next level through a passion project.

Examples of Passion project ideas are:

  • Publish a book or guide yourself on Kindle / Amazon
  • Start a podcast
  • Run an information campaign on social media
  • Start a YouTube channel
  • Patent application
  • Publish a blog
  • Hold a workshop or an online course

Publish your work in a high school research journal

Once you’ve completed an independent research project, the final step is to publish it in a high school research journal. This can take months as there is often a strict editing and approval process. Students should plan accordingly to ensure the paper is published before submitting their college applications.

However, students who are still in the process of compiling their research can find other ways to participate in research journals. In some magazines, students can criticize an article or write a blog post about recent research. Writing a full research paper is not always required to demonstrate research skills.

A selection of high school science journals:

1) Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI)

The Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI) was founded by Harvard University graduates to help advance the next generation of scientists. One benefit of this program is that students can get feedback from the university. Candidates and research experts on your topic. Your feedback can help students expand their research question or interpret the results more accurately.

Younger students are also welcome to apply. JEI accepts research from middle and high school scientists.

2) Columbia Junior Science Journal

The Columbia Junior Science Journal enables students to publish topics related to the natural sciences, physics, engineering, and social sciences. Students can submit one to two-page original work or two to five-page review articles. Because of the shorter length, it is easier for students to complete the research paper.

The students do not necessarily have to research independently. Instead, you can review a published article. The journals are published annually, and each paper is subjected to a rigorous peer-reviewed process.

3) The National High School Journal of Science (NHSJS)

NHSJS is a free, online, student-run, peer-reviewed research journal aimed at high school students. To be published in this journal, students do not need to do independent research. You can also submit a review or short article, which makes NHSJS a good place to start for research-minded students.

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