October 2013 Volume 3, Issue 1

The Value of High School Research Internships in University Laboratories: The Secondary Student Training Program

Katherine Degner, PhD
SSTP Administrator, Belin-Blank Center
The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa


The Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP) is a long-standing summer research program for high school students administrated by the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, at the University of Iowa.  For decades SSTP has been inviting highly capable high school students to work in research laboratories under the mentorship of a University of Iowa faculty member.   Students have worked in labs from the departments of Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Computer Science, Emergency Medicine, Engineering, Pharmacy, Physics, Psychology, and Public Health.  Students involved in the program gain experience using the eight Scientific and Engineering Practices outlined in the Framework for Science Education1.  Additionally, Olszewski-Kubilius (2010)2 asserts that students with talent in STEM areas can better prepare for work in STEM careers by having experiences with challenging academic work, by having authentic research experiences, and by having meaningful contact with STEM professionals; making the SSTP program and others like it an important part of the STEM pipeline for our most talented high school students.  Through our work with the program, we have learned many lessons along the way; both with the struggles our students encounter and ways to better serve the needs of the students as emerging researchers.  I’d like to outline three of the most meaningful lessons we’ve learned as part of SSTP, in hopes that our discoveries can be applied to many other research opportunities in STEM fields afforded to students.

1. Laboratory Research vs. Research in most High School Labs. For many of our students, this is the first research project they have been involved with that was not conducted as part of a high school laboratory assignment or a science fair research project.  Nearly all of the program participants are involved in a research project that spans many months, if not years.  Because the program runs for 6 weeks, students enter the research process at varying stages.  Students are often surprised to learn that much of the lab work is done on the computer, with computer models.  They also find the amount of reading required by their lab mentors to be a bit of a surprise.  Students are also exposed to the collaborative nature of scientific research, whether it be working with another lab on campus for a few days, or sending lab results out to be read by another office on campus.  Each of these individual experiences within the lab begins to chip away at the preconceived notion students have about what constitutes as research.  This new look at scientific research gives students a more realistic picture of what the life of a researcher truly entails.

2. Connections. The connections students make with lab mentors are among the most valuable.  Many times students return to the University of Iowa to volunteer time in a lab during their junior and senior years.  Students who might not otherwise consider attending the University of Iowa not only consider the school, but end up attending and getting right back to work on the research projects initiated during their SSTP experience.  On a handful of occasions our program participants have collaborated with their mentors or other people in the lab to write and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals.  The mentorship these lab mentors and other lab personnel offer the students is invaluable, but the students have to be taught how to network and make connections.   The need to be taught about how to connect with lab mentors at the completion of the program surprised me at first.  Now we encourage students to ask for letters of recommendation and talk about collaborating on papers or future research projects before ever leaving the University of Iowa campus.  Students are encouraged to find out if their lab mentor knows someone in a lab closer to their hometown that the students might work in during the school year.  Many of our SSTP mentors are all too happy to do this for the students, but students are often times unsure about who or what they can ask for.

3. If at first you don’t succeed. Join the club!  Our students have many opportunities for success as part of this program.  However, part of the experience of working in a research lab is also experiencing a little bit of failure.  In the long run, these experiences make the students better researchers, but in the short term this is sometimes hard for students to cope with. Many times students in this setting encounter for the first time a paper or a concept that they struggle to understand, or they try to run an experiment in the lab that they either set up improperly, or interpreted the results incorrectly.  In some cases the research question the lab mentor wants them to work on cannot be answered by the conclusion of the program and students leave without results, only to be emailed to them later by another lab member.  Still others experience rejection when a paper they try to submit as part of their lab experience is not accepted into a research journal.  For highly talented students sometimes this is the hardest, but most valuable part of the entire SSTP experience.  The failure all of our students experience is important because it is truly part of the life of a researcher.  In this setting it is extremely meaningful, however because each of these students are encouraged and comforted by their lab mentor and the program staff of the SSTP program.  In fact, Baseya and Francis (2011)3 assert that many times students’ attitudes toward lab work is influenced by their excitement in lab work and perceived ability with the content.  This finding makes the role of the mentor incredibly important.  Each of us involved in research can share a war story or two about a botched research project or a rejected paper or grant application. The truth is all of the people the students work with have this shared this experience.  But, all of them are able to show students that a true researcher may have to reframe a research question or redesign an experiment, but the life of a researcher is to never let failure stand in the way of answering the next question.  



1. National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

2. Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2010). Special schools and other options for gifted STEM students.  Roeper Review. 32. 61-70.

3. Baseya, J.M. & C.D. Francis. (2011). Design of inquiry-oriented science labs: impacts on students’ attitudes. Research in Science & Technological Education. 29(3). 241-255.