I’m afraid that I have not been able to keep up with my e-mail for the past two weeks, because this is a rather chaotic time of the year. I’m now getting caught-up.
I read your letter, which was impressively thoughtful and articulate. I’d like to help you, but there are a number of issues that make this difficult.
First, on a practical level, I already have two high school students scheduled to work in my lab this coming summer (one from Riverdale and one from Collegiate). This number is essentially the most that my lab can handle given its current staff level (which is smaller than it used to be because the de facto retraction in government support for basic research).
Second, it would be even more difficult to have a student work on a project of his or her own design rather than participating in one of our ongoing research projects. There are a wide variety of factors that make such an arrangement difficult, ranging from the practical to the pedagogical. Practically speaking, it is technically illegal for us to spend research funding on a project different from that proposed in our grant applications. While substantial latitude is possible in interpreting this restriction, a new project completely unrelated from those going on in the lab is problematic, because staff scientists in the lab would need to spend time on mentoring, and the staff is all paid off of research grants.
From a pedagogic perspective, while it makes sense in the abstract for you to think up your own project, it is highly problematic in practice. Our PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows are mostly working on long-term projects developed by someone other than themselves (i.e., even after a college education and also completing doing a PhD). It takes a lot of education and experience to develop a new and interesting research project from scratch. While it can be productive for a high-school student to try think-up and analyze a project from scratch, which I imagine is what your teacher is trying to encourage you to do, implementing such an educational program effectively would be very difficult and borders on the impractical.
I have innumerable reservations about the uncontrolled growth of Intel/Siemens-inspired high-school independent research programs. Many high-school students have been mentored in my lab, my wife has a PhD but has been working recently as high-school biology teacher (including at Chapin), and my oldest son is currently a sophomore at Horace-Mann and contemplating getting on this band-wagon next summer. Getting involved in some kind of research apprenticeship is great thing for an intellectually curious high-school student.
Doing so in the context of the Intel/Siemens competition turns the experience into yet another senseless endeavor in resumué-building arms-race for college admissions, which I view as a sociological phenomenon that has grown out-of-control to the great detriment of the development of intellectually motivated teenagers. The specific proposal in your letter seems designed to counter some of the most negative things that have grown out of the Intel/Siemens game, but, in practice, it raises other problems that your teacher probably could not have appreciated.
Your letter to me was very thoughtful and deserved a thoughtful response, although my response is almost certainly not the one that you were hoping for. Please feel free to share it with your teacher. I’d be happy to speak to him or her about related issues.
Best wishes for the New Year,”