Two Science Electives Introduce Students to Independent Research

Room 315, where Bill Wallace’s upper-level biology students do labs. Photo by Hercules Zhang.

Most science classes at GDS take a lecture-based approach, where students learn directly from a teacher at a whiteboard and occasionally perform labs to apply the material. Two science classes at GDS, however, shy away from the lecture style of learning and follow a more hands-on method.

Science teachers Bill Wallace and C.A. Pilling teach research-based courses at the high school: UL Research in Biology and Applied Research in Environmental Science, respectively. Wallace and Pilling pride themselves on having their students learn through investigation, research and discovery, rather than a traditional lecture-based approach.

Research in Biology consists almost entirely of labs. After spending a short while at the beginning of the year learning skills like lab report writing and statistical analysis, students dive into experiments based on a broad theme, such as homeostasis, and a model organism selected by Wallace. Second semester, they’ll construct their own labs based on their individual interests in biology.

Wallace said he created the Research in Biology course 15 years ago out of a desire to teach students to think like professional scientists. “I treat the kids like I would my grad students and my postdocs in terms of how you go about making discoveries,” Wallace said. “The technical level is different, of course, but the attitude and how you design an experiment is at that same level.”

Pilling teaches two independent semester-long environment courses; the fall course is centered on stream and forest ecology, while the spring course focuses on climate science and on social and environmental justice. In her classes, students do research in the field as opposed to in the lab, with the class visiting streams, parks and occasionally farms to collect data.

Pilling sought to create an opportunity for students to do field work as part of a class’s curriculum. She wanted students “to experience real hands-on learning and scientific investigation,” she said, which is why she created Applied Research in Environmental Science in 2017.

Wallace’s students split their time between two spaces: classroom 314 and lab room 315. Senior Izzy Evers, one of Wallace’s students, said she had never been in either of the rooms before, and she didn’t even know they existed. The lab room is only used by one other class—also an upper-level biology course—and remains a mystery to many students, who have never set foot in it.

Room 315 is also set apart from other lab rooms in that it boasts a large mural depicting brains and neurons spanning one wall. Wallace said he commissioned GDS alumnus Danny Diaz ’12 to design and paint the mural for the lab room about three years after Diaz graduated.

According to Wallace, the lab is stocked with the usual chemicals and equipment found in other high school labs, but his class sometimes requires additional supplies. Wallace obtains less common reagents, such as restriction enzymes for cloning, from certain biotech companies. For example, he has used New England BioLabs, which supplies high school and collegiate labs.

Students in his class often will design and build their own apparatuses, sometimes utilizing the theater department’s workshop. Wallace said that students once constructed a system of tubes to investigate the diet preferences of fruit flies, using materials from the shop.

The course’s second semester provides “an opportunity to teach kids how to ask intelligent questions,” Wallace said. He encourages students to figure out how to answer these questions on their own.

Evers said Wallace’s UL Research in Biology course “is fun because it’s discussion-based.” She prefers the more active learning approach of the class because she dislikes “sitting down and listening to a teacher explain things,” she said. “I’m much more of a hands-on learner.”

Senior Shiv Raman said that each student is responsible for their own work since “Bill is not breathing down your back, trying to make you get stuff done.”

Wallace’s students run their experiments with sometimes little to no guidance. Both Evers and Raman spoke about the autonomy Wallace gives them while they work on experiments—they even worked in the lab without faculty supervision when Wallace was out of town. Raman also spoke about being able to work in the lab outside of class if needed.

Wallace said that most of the students who take his class “are already interested in research to begin with and want to see what it’s about.” The roster of UL Research in Biology is entirely made up of seniors, as the course is designed to be a capstone class: a culmination of science learning for students interested in research.

Raman said that the class’s independent nature calls for reserving it for upperclassmen. “You need to be disciplined enough to carry the burden by yourself,” he said.

Both Wallace and Pilling expressed a desire for more research-based science in the GDS course catalog; Pilling said she wants more independent, open-ended  research opportunities outside of the classroom, too.

“We need to design a program for kids that are interested in doing science research that kids can start as 9th or 10th graders,” Wallace proposed. “What I’ve done is just a small start towards something I’d love to see be a more formal and a bigger program.”