Psychological science in middle schools

Psychological problem solvers from middle schools compete for awards.

By Robin Hailstorks, PhD

Robin Hailstorks, PhDIn this column I want to share two wonderful experiences afforded me recently that gave me an opportunity to see psychological science in middle schools across the nation.

The first experience occurred in late March at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. I was asked to serve as a judge for the DC STEM Fair. This annual event showcases the work of middle school and high school students in Washington, D.C. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were 22 projects in the social and behavioral science category and that several sixth- and seventh-grade students had entered the competition. What a great way to begin my weekend!

Following the general instructions on how to score the projects, I was ready to meet students who were anxious to talk to the judges about their projects. The topics for the projects I judged ranged from how the use of social networking tools may be related to depression to how gender influences how we perceive babies. There were several projects on the Stroop Effect and one project on how watching video games may lead to violent behavior. While the topics may sound ordinary, there was nothing ordinary about these students. In fact, I was so impressed with the research conducted by one of the sixth graders that I asked if an additional prize could be given to her. She not only understood how to conduct experimental research, but she also was able to present her research project in a highly professional manner. Moreover, she cited classical research in her paper. 

It was clear that these students understood the scientific nature of psychology and that the discipline is not secondary to other types of sciences. To be quite honest, I felt that these projects were among the best projects presented at the fair. I would like to see these students progress from the junior competition to the senior competition. And, I would also like to thank their science teachers for exposing them to psychological science and the important role it plays in helping solve problems of interest to them. I asked if I could serve as a judge for next year’s competition.

During the fair I met great colleagues I plan to keep in touch with. It is amazing to meet people invested in our youth who want to help students become scientists. At the same time, it is heartbreaking to see the limited resources available at some of these D.C. schools. These students have the knowledge and skills to produce these projects, but they do not even have the financial resources to print their posters. I plan to work with my colleagues at local colleges and universities to help these students and their teachers raise funds for their projects. I have already begun to reach out to my colleagues in D.C. to ask for their assistance in this regard.

The other experience I want to share is that of working with my colleagues from other disciplinary societies to select the eight finalists for the Christopher Columbus Awards program. This is a national, community-based science, technology, engineering and math program for middle school students. Students work in teams of three to four students, with an adult coach, to identify a problem in their community. Each team creates an innovative solution for the community problem. The eight finalist  teams receive an all-expense paid trip to Walt Disney World to compete for a $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant to work on a solution to the community problem. To learn more about this program, please visit the Christopher Columbous Awards website.

While I have served as a judge for this competition for the past six years, I am always excited to see how psychological science is being applied to community-based problems across America. It’s inspiring to read each proposal and to learn what middle school students think are the most pressing problems in their communities. It’s also so hard to select the top eight projects from among 30 semifinalists. Each April, my colleagues and I spend a day at the National Science Foundation selecting the projects. We feel so good about the projects and this great work, we always volunteer to serve as judges the following year.

These two experiences with middle school science projects affirm my understanding of the benefits of teaching psychological science in middle as well as in elementary school and the importance of preparing students to become psychological scientists. If these science projects are representative of what science educators are doing nationally, then psychological science is having an even greater impact than we might have thought.

I hope you are excited about working with middle schools in your local communities as I am now. It is truly rewarding to learn about these schools and their students. If you have not had this opportunity, I strongly encourage you to do so in the near future.

Best wishes for great spring and a happy end of the semester.