My high school students recently did something that rarely happens in a science classroom…they did science.

Although, inquiry based instruction has long been a science education buzz phrase, all too often when kids engage in developing experiments, the answers are in fact already known to science and could be discovered through a quick Google search on the topic. This is not exactly real science. The very nature of science is to ask questions with unknown answers and produce high quality evidence to help us better understand our world. My students took a very specific question with an unknown answer and made a small, but real contribution to what is known about life on our planet.

The results of our work, Maternally chosen nest sites positively affect multiple components of offspring fitness in a lizard appeared in the journal Behavioral Ecology yesterday. This type of science rarely happens at the high school level. It certainly isn’t expected to happen in an urban high school like Thomas Kelly High School on Chicago’s southwest side, where more than 90% of the students are designated as low income and gang violence is a harsh reality in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Although it is extremely rare, it is possible for young students to be a part of real research. Two years ago Blackawton Bees was published in Biology Letters. That paper, which examined how bees use spatial relationships with color to find food, listed 25 elementary school students as coauthors along with neuroscientist Beau Lotto, head teacher David Strudwick and classroom teacher Tina Rodwellyn. This highly publicized work involved a rural British elementary school class in an authentic research process. Students developed the experimental question, carried out the experiment and then students analyzed the results and wrote the discussion in their own words.

That work, published as our experiment was ongoing, helped to give me confidence that what I was trying to do with my students was indeed possible. Like the Blackawton Bees experiment, our research can change perceptions of what is possible in a science classroom and produced results that I feel are relevant to the way that researchers approach outreach and the way that we think about science education in general.

Our experiment, quickly dubbed The Lizard Project by my students, asked the question, “How does the choice of an egg laying female’s nest site affect the survival of her offspring?” This question is the same type of question that is frequently asked by professional researchers like my collaborator Dr. Dan Warner, but it is not the type of question that is typically asked by high school science students. To ask this question we moved 80 lizards into our classroom and started doing science.

Attempting to do a large scale experiment required a shift in the way we did biology class.

There would be no scripted set of procedures from the text book. Our question would not be answered neatly inside of two or three 45 minute class periods before we moved on to the next topic. My students and I were forced to improvise. Students got to take part in the process of figuring out the best way to answer our question. Rather than collecting data for a prescribed number of class periods, we collected data until we could reasonably answer our question with the level of confidence required of professional researcher. Although we didn’t completely abandon the other topics in biology, we committed to seeing the project through and it took us more than four months to do that.

I made the decision that my students would have the chance to be inspired to learn by diving deep into the process of actually doing science. In practice this meant that strictly teaching to the test would be impossible, but I don’t for one minute worry that my students suffered from doing science rather than learning about science. The look of wonder on a student’s face was unmistakable when they proudly held a tiny lizard egg in a dirt covered hand after diligently sifting through the potting soil in hundreds of our nesting boxes.

That very same sense of wonder is what drove many of us to be scientists and science educators. Even though the personal love of science that I watched grow in so many of my students throughout the project would be justification enough for learning by doing, I was satisfied to see that despite straying from the prescribed curriculum, my biology students have been shown to score at or above the level of their peers in other classrooms at our school.

Although it is far from guaranteed when engaging in authentic research, my students did find an answer to our research question. The data my students collected showed that female brown anoles are highly sensitive to moisture when choosing a nest site and that this choice of nest can have serious survival consequences for her hatchlings through the first 12 weeks of life. We found that a good choice of nest can lead to as much as a 22% increase in offspring size, when compared to a poor choice.

The results of our NSF supported. classroom research were significant. However, more important is the way I think our project has the potential to change perceptions about the high school science classroom and what is possible for collaborations between researchers and teachers. Our experiment was considerably outside the bounds of typical high school curriculum and the logistics of converting my classroom to a functioning live animal lab was no small hurdle. My students managed more than 100 lizards in 30 controlled enclosures for more than 4 months.

Doing this type of science may be outside the realm of possibility for most teachers working i­ndependently. In this case, our experiment was only possible because of a long-term collaboration with Dr. Fred Janzen’s evolutionary ecology lab at Iowa State and particularly with Dan Warner (now an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham). This relationship has proven tremendously beneficial to me, my students and Dr. Warner as we all contribute to, and learn from, real science. Completing this project leads me to believe that our work can be a new model for both researchers and classroom teachers. Here are five reasons why I think it is in everyone’s best interest when scientists and science teachers work together.

1) Science outreach works best when it is ongoing.

Far too often the model for outreach is a classroom guest lecture from a visiting scientist. The ongoing collaboration, developed over three years, with Dr. Warner and the Fred Janzen Lab at Iowa State allowed for me and my class to tackle a much deeper exploration of the scientific process than ever before.

2) Teachers are experts in communicating science to kids in a way that researchers are not.

Although many researchers are great science communicators, they do not typically have education training that matches that of a typical teacher. Teachers also have existing relationships with students that are vital to motivating student learning. Students benefit when the collaboration leverages the relative strengths of both teacher and researcher.

3) Researchers are in a great position to work with teachers to foster intellectual growth and develop original experiments.

Our entire system of producing PhD scientists is already based on researchers working with motivated college graduates to encourage scholarly growth through independent research. Because of this system, it is very easy for researchers to work in this type of relationship with an interested and motivated science teacher to the benefit of both.

4) The best science learning experiences in schools are big enough to be shared.

Large scale projects offer enough hands on experience to draw students in before they have the opportunity to sink their intellectual teeth into real data analysis. This project was large scale by high school standards. To start with we had 80 lizards in 20 enclosures. By the end we had a total of 30 enclosures and lizards hatching out of the incubator almost daily. Typical public high school teachers have 100 to 150 students at any given moment. All my students got to be thoroughly involved with the experiment precisely because there was so much animal care, data collection, and analysis to be done. A smaller scale project would not have provided as many opportunities for the direct hands-on work of so many students.

5) Outreach doesn’t have to take away time from research.

When researchers and teachers take the time to establish true professional collaboration, the lines between outreach and research are blurred. Dr. Warner committed to working with our class in a truly collaborative role. Through his commitment we were able to produce data that advanced his research while having a broader impact of the type that funding agencies like to see. When scientists and science teachers truly collaborate, science happens, everyone benefits and kids everywhere are capable of doing real science.