April 2014 Volume 3, Issue 2

Broadening Participation in Research for High School Students through Supplemental Grant Opportunities for Educational Partnerships Supported by the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovative Research Program

Steve Griffin, PhD
Einstein Fellow
Triangle Coalition, Arlington, Virginia


The Research Assistantship for High School Students is an opportunity for high school students to actively participate in ground-breaking, innovative research in an entrepreneurial setting.  These small businesses are funded with grants provided by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Engineering in the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships.  Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase II grantees provide the prospect for high school students to receive research assistantships that are funded by NSF through supplemental funding to the existing grant.  This program offers a wealth of choices for students seeking a chance to do hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research in a commercial setting.

It is never too early to start active research, especially with secondary students.  Scientific literacy as described by AAAS1 and skills developed through practice, such as modeling, the analysis of evidence and constructive oral defense, are rarely achieved through regular laboratory high school practices.  The RAHSS experiences help make serious strides in achieving scientific literacy and are open to all students at the secondary level.  It matters not whether it is in the physical sciences or in the life sciences; all research is a precursor for further endeavors in STEM.

The collaboration between RAHSS participants and principal researchers is a precious undertaking that can prove valuable for both parties.  Whereas it is natural to accept the value of project-based learning in a practical setting, the amount of inspiration that a high school student, teacher or undergraduate student might attain and spread may prove to be immeasurable.  Passion for STEM research can be contagious.  Participants that have encountered the research experience transmit their infectious enthusiasm, motivating peers to engage in their own investigation of science and math.

Researchers benefit from the observations of others with a different perspective.  Students and teachers who are currently involved collaboratively in active research with small business have proven this time and again.  These budding investigators’ nondiscriminatory observations generate worthy ideas and insight to the complexities associated with groundbreaking, innovative research and has demonstrated an impact on the decision-making process in an entrepreneurial setting.

Immersion in realistic scientific endeavors supports cognitive growth at a higher level and encourages participants to dig deeper into their own interests. Findings stressed by Greene, Wolfe, Weight, Cavanagh, and Zehring2 support evidence that the majority of students involved in research experiences at the secondary level pursue majors in STEM fields.  My own experiences as a teacher involved in Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) ignited a passion for sharing those experiences and growth with my own students and other STEM-based teachers.  The promotion of research experiences for high school students is a result of a so-called “trickle-down-effect.”  Passionate people are usually highly motivated, and by encouraging young people to investigate their own potential passions, those same young investigators can “pay it forward” to other students.

Jones3 notes that minority ethnic and racial groups are growing in size and proportionately in participation in areas suchbusiness, art, politics, etc. But minority groups are underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly the physical sciences.  This gap has both social and economic implications.  Increasing the number of role models for minority students, expanding opportunities for research, and providing more rigor and relevance at the secondary level would ensure adequate high school preparation to help alleviate the current disproportions in STEM. The NSF SBIR research experiences encourage the participation of underrepresented groups.  This powerful solution could help to not only diversify the STEM field, thus strengthening it, but it also could be pivotal in addressing a related need-a larger skilled STEM workforce.

The current trend of job outsourcing supports the belief that there is an increased need for a STEM skilled workforce.  This demand for a more qualified human resource can be filled by a supply that is more diverse and right underneath our noses.   By encouraging high school students to participate in research opportunities with small businesses, more possibilities spring up for budding STEM candidates. Although academia provides many opportunities, there lies an underutilized resource with the training, apprenticeship, and internship opportunities for high school students available with small business.  Out-of-school research experiences provide a medium where RAHSS participants get a real sense of how intellectual property is put to good use and how they can be a part of it.

A popular and pertinent goal of education policy makers is to practically infuse the Next Generation Science Standards into traditional science curriculum venues.  Although performing scientific research within a small business is nontraditional in a standard curricular academic arena, it is problem-based, applies modeling and involves the inclusion of the nature of science and engineering concepts4.  These practitioners of science can bring back to the classroom the excitement and wonder of the past generation of space enthusiasts.  My hope is that more teachers and students in the secondary setting investigate the possibilities becoming the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians necessary for economic growth in the U.S. by participating in innovative entrepreneurial scientific research.



1. American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Greenes, C., Wolfe, S., Weight, S., Cavanagh, M., & Zehring, J. (2011). Prime the pipeline project (P3); putting knowledge to work.  Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 11(1), 21-46.

3. Jones, A., (2013).” Minority groups underrepresented in STEM fields,” The Brown Daily Herald. Downloaded December 2013 from http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/10/30/minority-groups-underrepresented-stem-fields/

4. NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.