Since 1988, Gail Richmond has spent summers welcoming rising high school seniors to Michigan State University, where they devote seven weeks to conducting research while living on a college campus for the very first time. 

“It’s the kind of experience you have when you go to college, hopefully,” Richmond says of the Michigan State University High School Honors Science/Engineering/Mathematics Program, or HSHSP, the oldest, continuously running program of its kind. “I see it as a bit of a microcosm for college.”

Over the course of the summer, two dozen HSHSP students who have made it through a rigorous selection process engage in original research in science, engineering, or mathematics under the guidance of university mentors. They keep a weekly journal that Richmond reviews, write research proposals and a paper summarizing their work, and, in the last week of the program, give a conference-style talk. “We have sessions about, how do you read a scientific paper? How do you write a scientific argument? Why is an argument that you make in an engineering paper different from one that you might make in a biology paper?” Richmond says. “Those are skills that they will build upon if they go into the STEM areas. But I also think they’re skills that are just broadly helpful as they become college students.” Beyond facilitating academic work and adding an impressive line to college applicants’ resumes, HSHSP gives soon-to-be college students a chance to practice living away from home, and leaves plenty of room for bonding; often, the most fruitful conversations happen after 5 p.m. or on the weekends. “There are other aspects of the program that are just as important as the research experience,” Richmond says.  

What is High School Research?

HSHSP is one component of the broad network of high school research programs. Typically, students’ involvement starts in their own high schools, where they enroll in research programs that last anywhere from one to all four years. Some high schools have one overall program, combining students in science, math, engineering, and social science research, while others have separate programs; some high schools select only a percentage of student applicants, while others allow students to self-select in; some have a list of mentors with whom the students can work, while in others, students find their own research mentors, which can include attending university programs like HSHSP. Regardless of the projects students pursue, their research activities culminate in a concrete presentation of results and conclusions, which can range from oral presentations at science fairs to a 20-page scientific paper written according to a scientific protocol and submitted to national competitions like the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, which students can compete in during their senior year. What unites research programs is their commitment to training students in the fundamentals of research, writing, presentation, and participation in an academic community.  

At Ossining High School in New York, for example, students apply to the Science Research Program in their freshman year in order to participate sophomore through senior years. Angelo Piccirillo, who founded the program in 1998, and Valerie Holmes, who has been co-teaching it since 2004, accept about 35 students out of the 100 that usually apply each year. “We look for kids that are passionate about learning,” Piccirillo says. Curiosity and a desire for a different experience than they’ve had before are more important than an aptitude for science in particular, he explains. Holmes adds: “We’re looking for kids who want to be challenged beyond typical science curriculum.” 

Since 2001, Ossining’s Science Research Program has had 83 students place as semifinalists, and six as finalists, in the national Science Talent Search competition, which select 300 semifinalists each year out of about 2000 entrants. “These things bring you notoriety, but it’s just one dimension of the program,” Piccirillo says. “We don’t ignore the human factor. We don’t ignore the fact that kids need emotional support.” He and Holmes work hard to foster collaboration between students: each class has a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, which “allows the students in the program to form friendships and bonds across grade levels,” Holmes says, and to “see one or two years into the future so it’s not so scary.” As students pinpoint the nature of the research they want to do, seek mentors they’ve identified as experts through literature, work on independent projects, and present their findings, they turn to not only their teachers but also their classmates for advice and modeling. “The kids always describe it as a family,” Holmes says. “They feel like no matter what happens, they have their team there to support them.” This emotional support is vital as students try to meet the high standards the program sets for them (“We don’t accept mediocrity, so the kids learn right away that just getting by is not good enough,” Piccirillo says), and as they move through the frustrations that independent research inevitably engenders. Unlike in a science lab, out in the field, following instructions doesn’t yield a “correct” answer, and unexpected hurdles often present themselves. “Science requires resilience,” Holmes says. “Part of my effort in the classroom is to normalize the struggles that come with science and to make them realize that that’s just part of the natural process.” 

Stephanie Greenwald, who directs the Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research Program at Byram Hills High School, also in New York, places a high premium on emotional skill-building and community as well. Unlike Ossining’s research program, her program is self-selective—anyone who wants to can join—but that “doesn’t mean that anyone who wants to can make it through,” she says. There is an intense application process, including submitting and revising essays multiple times, as well as giving a PowerPoint presentation in front of other students. “That kind of weeds kids out,” Greenwald says; often, the program loses 10 to 20 percent of students per year. Those who remain, though, are interested in meeting the challenges of both doing and presenting research. Greenwald does everything she can to help them build the skills they need to get there, including fostering a strong sense of community between students. “I worked at summer camps for over 25 years,” she says. “There’s a lot of silly rituals that take place in my class that feel like camp.” Her program, like Piccirillo and Holmes’, has classes of mixed grades, “and our seniors set the tone,” she says. They give daily announcements, role play phone calls with mentors, and even do some of the teaching. “The teachers are more coaches, and the students are learning from each other,” Greenwald says. 

Succeeding in the program, Greenwald says, requires passion for the topic being studied (though this doesn’t mean feeling passionate about it every day); the capacity to grasp knowledge, which takes time and patience to develop; and organizational and time management skills, which the program teaches them. “We really feel strongly that students can study anything they want,” Greenwald says. Students have recently studied infant laughter, sustainable fashion, and relationships that people have with television characters: “If you can measure it,” Greenwald says, “you can study it.” 

Beyond what students gain from working with teachers and with each other, they often get a lot out of their relationships with research mentors at labs and universities, and through summer programs like HSHSP. Mentors volunteer to guide students through their work or incorporate students into their own original research projects, not for any compensation but out of generosity. “We really need to recognize the spirit of the researchers that are willing to help the kids in models like ours,” Piccirillo says. “I also would appeal for those that are considering it to really step forth, because we have so many kids that are willing to take the risk.”  

Students’ Experiences in Research and Beyond

One of the biggest takeaways for the participants in research programs is often the necessity and capacity for persisting through challenges. Nicole Camilliere, who graduated from Ossining High School this past year, spent her time in the Science Research Program studying how salt pollution affects water and wildlife. Her project involved taking samples once or twice per month by hand, plus relying on a secondary sensor. Unlike the hand samples, the sensor measured temperature in addition to conductivity, and provided minute-by-minute data. Camilliere faced a major challenge when, during a routine cleanup, the sensor was removed at one point, wiping out all the data. For that period of time, Camilliere had no choice but to rely on the hand samples alone. But, thanks to Piccirillo and Holmes’ teaching, she’d been alerted to the fact that challenges would arrive, and she was not discouraged: “When you stumble across a problem, you’re going to have to find a way to keep going.” Camilliere’s findings, which suggested that the overapplication of road salt surpassed drinking water standards and that the salt applied in winter stays put in summer, infiltrating streams year-round, won her a semifinalist title in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Beyond this prize, she credits her experience in the program with helping her build presentation and communication skills; fostering perseverance; and instilling the value of working in community and as a team, something she imagines will help her in any job she has going forward. “Programs like this give you experiences you’re not going to get anywhere else,” she says. Holmes, who runs the program’s alumni group, can attest to that: “When you talk to the kids now, 10, 15, 20 years later, they’re still keeping track of how well we’re doing,” she says, which “means to me that we’re making a difference in the community.”  

Nicole Meyers, who was a member of the Science Research Program at Schreiber High School, from which she graduated in 2010, did bench research at Columbia University that earned her a semifinalist award from the Intel Science Talent Search. “It was organic chemistry, which I had obviously never even been exposed to,” she says. Her first day, her research major gave her a huge stack of organic chemistry textbooks. Under her mentor, Meyers worked in a lab trying to optimize the conditions around the creation of the porphyrin molecule, which has many applications in biology and medicine but is “particularly challenging to create at high yield.”  

Through this project and her participation in the program throughout high school, Meyers learned basic research methodology, which served her both in college at Cornell University and in medical school at NYU. (Meyers is now a pediatric resident at New York Presbyterian / Columbia Medical Center, so: she’s come full circle.) She also built presentation skills she’s relied on since, especially in the final year of the research program, during which she presented her work to both classmates and parents. “I was figuring out how to present it so that the layman could connect with this project in some way, and I feel like that’s a skill that has served me so well,” she says. Beyond these academic skills, she connected deeply with her small research program cohort. Among the 10 of them, “there was definitely a lot of camaraderie and a lot of teamwork,” Meyers says. “One of my best friends is still from the science research program.” 

Many research program students, like Meyers, go on to study and work in STEM fields in college and beyond. As a high schooler in Melbourne, Florida, David Troner conducted research on the aerodynamic benefits of wing tip devices on airplanes, an extension of his personal passion for aviation and flying planes. He went on to pursue a dual major in aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he also started a club to build a small airplane. At UF, Troner’s research explored flexible wing designs for small UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles). “I was always interested in the aerodynamic side. It seemed like black magic, how planes fly. And wings were the poster child of aerodynamics.”  

After college, Troner continued to explore the inner workings of planes at Northup Grumman, where he designed “fly by wire” software that links the pilot’s input with how the plane’s surfaces move. He then undertook a master’s in aerospace engineering at Stanford and made a significant pivot from his interest in aerodynamics to the design side, “the early stage of thinking about ideas, the classic sketching of ideas on the napkin. What if we tried this? What if we tried that?” Troner is now a conceptual design engineer in Hyundai’s relatively new division of Urban Air Mobility, designing air taxis.   

Just like Meyers, Troner keeps learning and adding new skills in his chosen field. His next step is to attend Stanford’s Graduate School of Business so that he can learn how to build the infrastructure to support urban air mobility vehicles. “There’s a whole ecosystem on the business side that I want to transition to: figuring out the back-end of how to actually make this a service and bring it to a city near you.” Troner feels that his early research in high school “set the foundation for exploring different configurations and trying novel ideas.” 

But other research program students build professional lives far afield of STEM work, as lawyers, novelists, teachers, and more. No matter what, their research experiences are likely to benefit them: “Learning how to read and write and think and talk in coherent and compelling ways are skills that everybody should master,” HSHSP’s Richmond says. 

“We want their projects to be great, we want their projects to be meaningful, and even, perhaps, add to the knowledge base,” Piccirillo says. “But at end of day, what is it that we really want? We want to teach the kids how to be functional adults. So, what does that mean? I’m able to meet my challenges. I know I’m going to be stepping on some potholes. I need to get up. I need to keep moving.”  

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When I work with high students on research, I explain the potential benefits of participating in such programs at the personal, collegiate, and career levels. Once they’ve committed to pursuing research, we work together—through dialogue as well as personality and interest assessments—to identify where their interests lie. Do they gravitate toward science, math, engineering, or social science? For their senior year summer research project, would they prefer to participate in a university program, find a mentor locally, or design their own project? We then look for appropriate research opportunities that match their interests and their preferences. Finally, I guide students through incorporating their research experiences into their college applications through their essays, resumes, activity sheets, and interviews, and—most importantly—help them imagine how they can build on these experiences in their college years and beyond.  

By Julie Raynor GrossEdM, MBA, CEP (NY) 

Julie Raynor Gross, Collegiate Gateway LLC, can be reached at [email protected]