The Journal of Emerging Investigators started with bees. Actually, bees, third graders, and a group of graduate students at Harvard.
Each week, the students in the Microbiology and Immunobiology Department gather for a journal club, which consists of enjoying a free lunch while a peer presents a scientific paper. One week in November 2010, a fellow student presented a paper on bumblebee vision entitled “Blackawton Bees”. The choice of topic confused my colleagues and me, since none of us worked on anything remotely related to bee behavior. Everyone got ready to load up on free food and tune out the presentation.
What we quickly came to realize was that this paper – this published, scientific paper – had been written by third graders!(a) While it wasn’t going to revolutionize the field or win a Nobel Prize, we were all extremely impressed by how these elementary school students were able to develop a hypothesis, design experiments to test that hypothesis, and draw meaningful conclusions from their experimental results. Even more impressive was the fact that the students had their work published in a peer-reviewed journal. My colleagues and I were thinking, “Wow, what a great way to learn science.”(b)
Then the light bulb went off: Why not create a journal dedicated exclusively to publishing student research?
What developed is the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI), an academic journal that publishes research projects undertaken by middle and high school students (though ambitious third graders are encouraged to apply, as well). Students perform basic research – whether out of personal interest, for science fairs, or as part of class projects – then use the science-writing guidelines on our website to compose an article based on their findings. Once students submit their work, we send it to three scientists in a related field, who provide the students with comments and suggestions on how to improve their research and the article overall. If these steps sound familiar, that’s because they mirror the same basic review process used in all scientific publications.
Writing and publishing original research is essential for success as a scientist, yet almost no opportunities exist for young students to engage with this process in a rigorous way. Science writing in secondary school typically lacks the structure and rigor found in professional publishing. Though there are hundreds of academic science journals, very few accept work from middle or high-school students, and none focus primarily on this group or provide the mentoring and support necessary to facilitate an educational experience. We try to strike the right balance between rigorous standards of scientific integrity and realistic expectations about what kind of science research middle and high-schoolers can produce.
Since we launched JEI in 2011, we’ve received over 40 submissions from students across the United States, and even a few from abroad. The articles that have made it through the review process and been published have focused on a range of topics. One of our first papers examined whether biodegradable plastic wrap was as good as non-biodegradable wrap for storing food.(c) Another pair of students examined microbes in their households and tested the effectiveness of a 70% ethanol solution at eliminating them. Both of these experiments represent applications of the scientific method to everyday problems these young students are curious about.
My colleagues and I created JEI to educate students about the fundamentals of science research and writing and foster a community of young scientists. Submitting an article helps demystify the process of academic publishing to students who might not otherwise have access to experimental research. The review process connects students directly with professional researchers so they can envision what it’s like to work as a scientist. Eventually we hope to have enough publications on our website that other students can use these articles as a resource in their own investigations.
It’s critical for academics to step beyond the bench and directly mentor the next generation of scientists. Fostering an early familiarity with science is of vital importance in the U.S., where students are generally not prepared for the realities of a professional career in the sciences.(d) By and large, the reception to JEI so far has been one of excitement. Educators have told us that they have been waiting for something like this to fill a void in science learning, and students have been enthusiastic about the prospects of learning directly from researchers and getting their own research published for everyone to see.
- P. S. Blackawton, S. Airzee, A. Allen, S. Baker, A. Berrow, C. Blair, M. Churchill, J. Coles, R. F.-J. Cumming, L. Fraquelli, C. Hackford, A. Hinton Mellor, M. Hutchcroft, B. Ireland, D. Jewsbury, A. Littlejohns, G. M. Littlejohns, M. Lotto, J. McKeown, A. OToole, H. Richards, L. Robbins-Davey, S. Roblyn, H. Rodwell-Lynn, D. Schenck, J. Springer, A. Wishy, T. Rodwell-Lynn, D. Strudwick, and R. B. Lotto (2011) “Blackawton bees,” Biology Letters, 7(2): 168-172.
- (a) The paper was written by 25 students from a primary school in Britain, with guidance from their teacher and a scientific researcher. Their key finding was: “We discovered that bumble-bees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from. We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”
- (b) In 2012, the researcher and one of the students involved in the Blackawton Bees research gave a TED talk on the project.
- (c) The paper’s authors, students at a Massachusetts high school, found that biodegradable plastic wrap was just as effective as traditional wrap at preventing food spoilage over short periods of time (1 to 3 days), but less effective over longer periods (11 days).
- (d) A recent report by the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that 60% of students who start college with the intention to major in a STEM field (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have switched to a non-STEM field by graduation. Another study found that only 30% of high school graduates in the U.S. are prepared for college-level science courses and 45% are ready for college math.