Even though junior Jack Queenan has exhausted Minnetonka High School’s offerings of Advanced Placement science classes, he won’t be locked out of a hands-on science experience next school year.
The school’s Authentic Research Program, opening in the fall at the high school, will offer longer-term research projects. It’s part of a push toward earlier college-level opportunities for students interested in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.
“It’s exciting that we get to take the training wheels off a little bit and apply what we’ve been learning in school to the real world,” said Queenan.
Minnesota schools have been adding labs geared toward student experimentation and research for nearly a decade, according to Doug Paulson, a STEM specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education. These projects — sometimes individual, sometimes collaborative — give science-inclined students chances to explore a topic area or question, experiment and gauge a potential fit for a college major.
Breck School in Golden Valley has had a research lab for years; other high schools, including Apple Valley and Mahtomedi, have created fabrication labs for experimentation and building, using tools such as 3-D printing and laser engravers to create products.
Even students who pursue science-related fields in college may not get to do research until graduate school, said Kim Hoehne, an AP physics teacher at Minnetonka and a leader of the research lab’s development. Students who come through research programs gain skills that can spring forward into college — notably, confidence to ask for research projects as undergraduates, she said.
“They have that experience to be able to jump into that next level quicker when they get to their college studies,” she said.
A science research program at Breck offers high school students a summer of research and then a seminar-style class at Breck. Some of the 19 students this year are delving into whether Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed using images of the retina; how bacteria could be modified to help in oil-spill cleanup, and programming robots to help children in physical therapy, said Princesa Hansen, who heads the school’s science department.
“What we recognize is students are naturally curious,” Hansen said.
The program has been run there since the late ’80s. After exploring a topic, reading literature and talking with field professionals, students develop a hypothesis, do research and evaluate data to think about statistical significance. They then write a research paper about what they’ve learned, Hansen said.
At a school board study session in October, Minnetonka Assistant Superintendent Eric Schneider said the high school has a strong science and engineering program, but not one that lets students tackle research.
The school is also building state-of-the-art science labs.
Mahtomedi High School and Apple Valley High School have “fab labs,” or fabrication labs, where students get hands-on experience creating and building in labs.
The concept started as an outreach project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for digital fabrication.
Fab labs have popped up in schools across the country as a prototyping platform for inventions.
Hoehne said she anticipates 30 to 45 students in the Minnetonka program next year, though registration isn’t until February.
The skills to push past failure and persevere are valuable life lessons for the students, she said.
“We want to give them a safe place to feel that failure is OK, and just a part of the process,” Hoehne said. “With the right support and resiliency, then there’s going to be a lot of growth.”