Expand high school research outreach

Tanya Chen

Research can be a valuable part of the undergraduate student experience, as it offers an alternative to traditional classroom learning that is both empowering and inspiring. However, most students don’t gain exposure to research until they reach college.

“Coming into UT, I was scared because I didn’t have any prior research experience,” biology senior Michael Kalwick said. “Several of my high school friends were wealthy enough to attend research programs with MD Anderson (Cancer Center) and other research labs, so my lack of experience made me feel less confident.”

In order to support research education for students before college, UT needs to offer more accessible ways for high school students to become involved in research. 

UT currently has two main research outreach programs for high school students: the High School Research Initiative and High School Summer Research Academy, both of which are hosted by the College of Natural Sciences. The High School Research Initiative provides high school students with a few months of research-based experiences at their school during the school year, while the High School Summer Research Academy invites students to campus to participate in ongoing Freshman Research Initiative projects over the summer. 

However, participation in both high school research programs is limited to schools in the greater Austin metropolitan area, and the summer research academy requires fees that can be a large financial burden for low-income students. 

Albert MacKrell, a research educator for the College of Natural Sciences’ Freshman Research Initiative, has a different approach for high school research outreach. MacKrell heads a collaborative research project with Denise Sanders, a high school teacher at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, that has the potential to make scientific research more accessible to high school students across the state.

For the past six years, MacKrell has been working with Sanders to provide her senior biomedical sciences students with a year-long project based on his research in gene networks. Every year, Sanders’ students are assigned a new molecule to study in their school labs, and they report their findings back to MacKrell at the end of the project. 75% of students at the Ann Richards School come from primary schools where the majority of students are from economically disadvantaged families, and opportunities like this are few and far between.

“Doing research with a university professor — that’s meaningful,” Sanders said. “They’re trying to find something that’s not already known. The kids know that what they’re doing is useful, so they care more about it than premade ‘cookbook labs.’”

MacKrell said providing underserved high school students with an opportunity to get involved in research early on boosts their confidence and encourages them to take ownership of their own contributions.

“It gives (students) a very different perspective on science,” MacKrell said. “It tells them that they’re capable of research, and it teaches them to troubleshoot and learn from their failures.”

For high school students, having this kind of exposure to research can be incredibly empowering, as it can help them discover their own scientific interests and gain skills they need to pursue those interests in college. 

“A lot of my friends who have never had research experience don’t even try to apply for labs,” Kalwick said. “They’ve never done something like that before, so it makes them more hesitant to start. It kind of works like a negative feedback loop.”

In order to expand research opportunities available to high school students, UT needs to allocate more funding toward organizing collaborations like MacKrell and Sanders’. By providing more accessible ways for underserved high school students to get involved in research, UT will be able to better equip students with the hands-on experience and confidence they need to pursue research projects in the future. 

Chen is a finance and Plan II sophomore from Austin, Texas.