Students gain real-life research skills with high school course

Mar 14, 2021

Maeve Carrigg is collecting bugs. Evan Garcia is talking to state legislators — and a former governor. Molly Rioux is contacting health professionals all over the country. Karley Richard and John Kertscher are surveying their peers.

The Dartmouth High schoolers are among a group of 52 juniors and seniors conducting their own research projects as part of the school’s recently reinstated AP Research class.

AP Research makes up the second part of the two-year AP Capstone program, which was brought back to the school last year after a years-long hiatus.

The program started in 2014 as a way to develop students’ skills in research, analysis, writing and presenting rather than subject-specific learning. 

It includes AP Seminar — a one-year class focused on basic research skills, comprising group work and a final presentation — and the more self-directed AP Research class, which started up again this year.

English teacher Will Higgins taught the Capstone program years ago, and is teaching it again this time around.

He said he’s happy to see it back at the high school.

“The thing I love about it is that the kids get to take on things that they're passionate about,” Higgins explained. “You don’t get a lot of chances to do that in high school.”

Students develop their own research question and gather their own data to contribute to academia, with a final paper and a presentation of their findings at the end of the year.

“They have to create actual data from this,” said Higgins, adding that they follow the same rules and processes — including institutional ethics reviews for human survey subjects — as professional scientists and researchers. 

“It’s like an independent research project you might take on in college,” he noted.

Expert advisers for the projects include teachers, professors, scientists and other professionals, and for Evan Garcia, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis — along with state Rep. Chris Markey — is advising Garcia on his project exploring how the state government is responding to the Covid pandemic.

“I’m contacting all of the members of the legislature and giving them a survey to fill out,” the junior explained. “It asks them about how they responded to Covid so far, and what their thoughts are on the response from the state.”

“It’s definitely a very interesting opportunity,” he said of the class. “It’s not something that you traditionally see in the educational setting, to do this kind of research undertaking.”

Junior Molly Rioux agreed.

“It's a really interesting class,” she said. “It is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding!”

For her project, Rioux is looking into the influence of socio-economic factors on women’s reproductive health, and has been interviewing health experts from New Bedford to Arizona.

“I was surprised by some of the information I’ve collected so far,” she said. “That’s the exciting part of it too...Not only is it new to you, but it may very well be new to thousands of people. That’s part of the thrill!”

For Maeve Carrigg, who has been interested in science since fifth grade, the thrill is being able to conduct her own scientific research — and use devices in the lab she hasn’t used before. 

Carrigg is collecting local bugs and looking at their DNA to see if they have a certain type of bacteria — called Wolbachia — that can prevent the spread of diseases such as Dengue and Zika.

The class has given her the chance to see what it would be like actually conducting her own experiments, she said. “If I want to do that later in life, it’s given me a doorway to do that.”

And although finding the bugs in winter has been the only challenge so far, she noted, it isn’t always challenging. 

“[One day] I was sitting in class taking notes when a bug flew onto my Chromebook,” she laughed. “So I was able to collect it!”

Other students are surveying their peers or community members as part of their research.

Karley Richard is studying informal music therapy, or how young adults use music to make themselves feel better if they’re having a bad day.

She’s interested in finding out if it has a positive effect on mental health, and if all types of music are equally effective.

As part of the school marching band and indoor percussion ensemble, Richard said, she’s “very involved with music.”

“I like to listen to music a lot to make myself feel better, specifically in the car,” she noted, adding that many of her peers do the same.

Meanwhile fellow junior John Kertscher is also surveying fellow teens as part of his project on how social media algorithms affect people’s political extremism.

“Especially in this election cycle, I noticed there’s a huge divide between the different ideological groups,” he said. “So I decided to examine specifically how this technology impacts us.”

He said he appreciates the professional applications of the work that they’re doing in the class.

“It’s really the first class that I’ve taken that’s taught me how to properly format and gather data,” he noted. “It’s a lot more difficult than other classes. But I think it’s absolutely worth it.”

“I thought that this class was going to be a burden to get over with for the Capstone program,” agreed Richard. “But I'm actually having way more fun than I thought I would be having!”