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 is stopping them from exploring research while they are still in high school through an independent research project (IRP). When conducted well and presented appropriately on a college application, the project can help a student stand out among the masses.
According to U.S. News and World Report, “High school students who have an impressive personal project they are working on independently often impress colleges, because their commitment to a successful solo endeavor conveys initiative, self-discipline and originality.”
IRPs can showcase critical thinking, initiative, and research acumen. These projects can be used to distinguish the student from their peers, especially in STEM-related disciplines, which is often hard to accomplish.
Ways To Pursue An Independent Research Project
There are many different avenues where students can pursue an independent research project. For many, an easy way to get started is by accessing resources at their high school, either through a research-based class or independently with a teacher.
Lindsey Conger, an independent college counselor at Moon Prep, frequently guides her students in reaching out to local professors to work with them on their current research projects. Recently, one of her students successfully partnered 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 the summer. The long-term goal is to get this paper published in a high school research journal.
Many students might prefer a more structured setting by attending a camp focused on research, while highly-motivated students can choose to pursue a project independently. No matter which pathway students choose, the end goal should be the same: getting published in a high school research journal and showcasing your work.
Research Projects Through Your High School
One of the first avenues to consider is whether your high school already has a research program or a research-based curriculum that you can tap into to start a project. There’s a built-in advantage to this approach because the student can utilize school resources and mentorship from their instructors. Some high schools have research classes with an independent project component that can be submitted to local science fair competitions. Students who win their school’s science fair should always look to take their accomplishments to the next level and compete at the state or national fair. By always looking for ways to continually progress with their projects, students can demonstrate to colleges their motivation and skills.
Other school pathways for conducting an IRP include AP Capstone. This program from the College Board consists of two Advanced Placement (AP) courses: AP Seminar and AP Research. Both courses guide students through a research project, writing an academic thesis paper, and making a public presentation.
AP Seminar, a year-long course, encourages students to explore real-world issues. By the end of this course, students will have completed both a team project and an independent paper and presentation.AP Research lets students explore any research topic or issue in which they are interested. After a year-long investigation, students will write a 4,000 – 5,000 word paper on the topic.
Work With A College Professor
Finding a mentor to work with you on a research project can help you gain access to resources, guide you through the data-gathering process, and help you form conclusions.
One way to find a mentor is by reaching out to college professors who are researching or studying a similar topic that you are interested in pursuing.
To get started, students can follow these steps:
- Make a list of your future career interests.
- Start to document potential research topics related to your interests.
- Search current research studies, by professors and graduate students, on local colleges’ department faculty websites.
- Reach out to faculty members whose research interests you (a sample email is listed below as a guide).
- Include your activities resume to allow the faculty to get to know more about you and your interests.
Dear Dr. Andrews,
My name is James Smith, and I am a current junior at Central High School. I aspire to major in microbiology while in college, and I am eager to further my knowledge in the field through hands-on research involving immunology. I have taken numerous challenging courses and received an ‘A’ in AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Calculus and AP Physics. As a Texas native, I have long been familiar with the research resources at the University of Texas, and I find your current research on tuberculosis especially intriguing. I would love the opportunity to learn more about your research. I would greatly appreciate the chance to discuss the potential opportunities for collaboration. Is it possible to schedule a brief call this week?
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Attend A Structured Research Program
Students might be hesitant to tackle an independent project because they are overwhelmed by the process. Choosing the right topic, finding resources, or securing a mentor can all be daunting tasks. Additionally, because students are juggling rigorous courses, extracurricular activities and preparing for standardized exams, gaining momentum can be a difficult hurdle.
Therefore, STEM-focused research programs can be a more structured pathway to an independent research project. Students are mentored by an experienced instructor through a program and can sometimes even earn college credit. Students can then continue advancing their research after the course has ended or use their newfound skills as a springboard for other research projects.
Rising Researchers is an online research-intensive class designed to provide students with an introduction to the principles of scientific research. Before the class begins, students are mailed a lab kit, including a microscope. While it is an online class, students won’t be sitting in front of a Zoom screen, statically learning. Through small group discussions and hands-on experiments at home, students delve into the microbial world while learning from a leading scientist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Many students completing the Rising Researchers program go on to 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 leverage what they learn throughout the program to take their research to the next level through a passion project.
Sample Passion Project Ideas Include:
- Self-publish a book or guide on Kindle/Amazon
- Start a podcast
- Run an informational campaign on social media
- Launch a YouTube channel
- File for a patent
- Publish a blog
- Hold a workshop or online course
Publish Your Work In A High School Research Journal
Once you have completed an independent research project, the final step is to get it published 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 that the paper is published before they submit their college applications.
However, students who are still in the process of compiling their research can find other ways to get involved in research journals. Some journals allow students to critique an article or write a blog post about current research. Writing a full research paper isn’t always necessary to showcase research skills.
A Sampling Of High School Science Journals:
Founded by Harvard University graduate students, the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI) aims to help mentor the next generation of scientists. An advantage of this program is students can get feedback from university Ph.D. candidates and research experts on their topic. Their feedback can help students expand their research question or more accurately interpret results.
Younger students are also welcome to apply—JEI will accept research from both middle and high school scientists.
The Columbia Junior Science Journal allows students to publish in topics within the natural sciences, physical sciences, engineering and social sciences fields. Students can submit one- to two-page original research papers or two- to five-page review articles. Because of the shorter length, it makes it more feasible for students to finish the research paper.
Students don’t necessarily have to complete independent research; they can review a published article instead. The journals are published annually, with each paper undergoing a strict peer-review process.
NHSJS is a free, online, student-run and peer-reviewed research journal that is targeted towards high school students. To be published in this journal, students don’t have to do independent research. They can also submit a review or short article, making NHSJS a good starting point for students interested in research.
*Read the full article and more from Moon Prep on our Forbes column.