Eager to get students to look beyond their textbooks, Anne Arundel County school officials will offer high school credit next fall at some schools to those who conduct cutting-edge research.
With the change, students who have taken biology or will be enrolled in biology as freshmen will be able to take the science research class. Students also will be able to explore topics in mathematics, computer science, engineering or social sciences, said Rochelle Slutskin, coordinator of science for Anne Arundel schools.
The course is intended to help prepare students to enter regional and national science competitions.
Students, parents and teachers had sought opportunities for students to build research skills outside core science courses, Slutskin said.
Offering only traditional science classes "is kind of like expecting students to learn how to play basketball but never letting them play the game," she said.
The course will be offered based on student interest and would count as half a science elective credit, she said. It would follow the guidelines of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is affiliated with local and regional science fairs.
Offering the class would support Superintendent Eric J. Smith's goal of having 20 percent of county 11th-graders participate in a regional, state or national competition by 2007.
Independent research courses teach students how to write and present their projects, said Melanie Jacobs Krieger, a Long Island, N.Y., school district administrator. She taught research courses for 20 years and wrote a book for school leaders about starting science research programs. The students also consider the ethics of science research, Krieger said.
"This is not a course where you sit in your seats and take notes," she said.
Most school districts in the Baltimore area offer similar courses for credit, although some are open only to those at magnet schools or in gifted-and-talented programs. Slutskin said she expects to develop one or two more advanced courses.
Nationwide, many school districts and schools offer such courses, said Katherine Silkin, a program manager for the Intel fair, although she could not estimate the number.
More than anything else, such classes make students aware of the opportunity to enter such competitions and help them organize their time to make sure they meet the deadlines, she said.
Starting a project during the school year allows little time to enter some competitions, and many students conduct their research during the summer with off-campus mentors at a college or other research facility.
"It's almost an armature or a grid work in which to pin their interest and skill," Silkin said of the research course.
County students have entered science contests and fared well.
About 50 students entered the regional level of the Intel competition last year, Slutskin said. Last year, a three-member team from Broadneck High School in Annapolis presented their work - developing software for a method of identifying short strands of DNA - to a conference of young journalists in European Union countries.
Erin Frey, a former South River High student, took home honors last year and this year for her work investigating the presence of water on Mars.
"This is real science, where kids are doing state-of-the-art research," Krieger said.
The focus is not simply on winning. Participating in these activities introduces students to a world beyond what's described in their textbooks, which can lead to prospects in the future, said Krieger.
"Kids are published, presenting at national science symposia where the adults are," she said. "This is very high level."
There also is a social aspect. The competitions and the courses help the students meet others who are interested in research.
"It gives that child a group to work with," Krieger said.