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High School Researchers Learn STEM Concepts to Probe Smoking Links

It's often noted that students can lose their early science interest as they get into secondary school, around the time visions of mad scientists and genius "eureka" moments give way to the reality of challenging math lesson and meticulous record-keeping. But one National Science Foundation-supported high school program is recruiting high school students to conduct original research on smoking behavior—and learn genetics and research procedures in the process.

The Exploring Databases project, created by the University of Washington's genomic sciences department and the Institute for Science and Math Education, in Seattle, teaches high school students how to conduct their own studies. It builds on increasing interest in so-called 'gamification' in STEM fields, in which students can role-play careers of interest, as well as citizen science projects, in which students and members of the public are recruited to help in massive data-collection efforts, such as tracking bird migrations or identifying new stars.

The project uses a 300-person database of smoking behaviors, which was developed by a prior group of high school students who conducted both behavioral surveys and genotyping. Since 2010, nearly 600 community college and high school students have participated in the project, which includes taking seven lessons of one-to-two hours each on conducting human-subject research, criteria to gauge causal and correlational evidence, statistical methods, epidemiology, genetics and the neurobiology of nicotine addiction.

"This is a topic that is relevant to high school students," said Maureen Munn, the director of education outreach for the University of Washington genome sciences department and primary investigator for the project, in a statement. "A lot of them have experience with smoking among their family and friends, if not themselves. They do some research in the literature as well to develop their ideas about factors that might affect smoking behavior."

It's not yet clear how much the project improves students academic understanding of science processes and concepts, but it's generating some early buzz by winning the Science prize for inquiry-based instruction. The project also highlights a mostly untapped area for collaboration between education researchers and schools, in getting the students themselves involved in research studies. If you know any researchers training and working with students to collect and analyze data about their own learning experiences, please let me know in the comments.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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