Spirit Jumping-Off Rocks? A small portion of the 88+ foot line

Independent Science Research Class

project from this class was  published in a peer-reviewed academic journal: Wing, M.R., Iida, K. and Wearing E. (2015) “Stone-by-Stone Metrics Shed New Light on a Unique Stone Alignment at the Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, Alta California.”California Archaeology. Vol. 7, No. 2. pp. 245-264.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1947461X.2015.1108565  (The students are now at Barnard and Cal Poly, respectively. Dr. Wing hopes to stay at Drake until 2028.)  In 2014 the same project was the subject of a feature article in the Point Reyes Light.  

In 2014 another project from this class was published in a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal :  Wing M.R., Knowles A.J., Melbostad S.R. and Jones A.K. (2014) “Spiral grain in bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) exhibits no correlation with environmental factors.”  Trees – Structure and Function. Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 487-491.  DOI 10.1007/s00468-013-0965-y.  (The students are now at Dartmouth, UCLA and Tulane, respectively.)  In 2013 the same project won the Mu Alpha Theta Award for the “Most Challenging, Thorough and Creative Investigation of a Problem Involving Mathematics Accessible to a High School Student”, and advanced to the California State Science Fair.  

In 2012 a project from this class took the top honors at the Marin County Secondary Science Fair.

This class requires 4 hours per week of your time, like any other class. It really should not be an 8th class in your schedule.

This class and College:  It is an elective class, not a “lab science”  class.  It cannot replace classes like chemistry, physics or AP biology on your transcript.  However, it gives you something to write about in your college essays and gives people something to say about you in letters of recommendation.  Since 2012 Drake students who took this class have attended Bard, Barnard, Bennington, Cal Poly, Dartmouth, Tulane, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD and the University of Colorado at Boulder, among others.

You will have occasional short meetings with the teacher, Dr. Wing, during lunch or after school but the class itself does not meet during periods 1-7, so it does not conflict with any other class or with being on a sports team.IMG_2499 indep sci res class bristlecones

You will do a science project. You can do it alone, or in a group. The project can be your own idea, or you can work on an idea that Dr. Wing gives you. You will need to spend 4 + hours per week on it; and you will need to regularly demonstrate the time you spend and the progress you make. You will have to submit your project to a science fair or academic competition administered by an organization outside of Drake High, or give your data to an outside science organization who wants it.

Questions to start thinking about:
Do I want to work alone, or in a group?
What kind of project am I interested in?
Do any of Dr. Wing’s ideas appeal to me?
Do I have ideas of my own that I want to pursue?
Which science fair, competition or program do I want to enter?
Are there any existing “Citizen Science” programs that I want to participate in?
Am I prepared to work a consistent 4 + hours per week on this?


What “A” work looks like:  You show initiative!  You take the project and run with it.  Your teacher doesn’t have to prod you to take the next step, and rarely has to ask you for a status report because you often go to the teacher and say “This is what I got done last week and this is my plan to move forward, and this what I need from you to do it.”  It’s obvious that you are putting in plenty of time and making steady progress.  If you work in a group, every group member acts this way.  During the spring semester, you enter a science fair, or otherwise give your results to some outside-of-school organization that cares about them.

What “B” work looks like:  You get the job done, but the teacher often has to ask you for an update or encourage you to take the next step.  You leave entering the science fair to others.

What “C” work looks like:  There are uncomfortably long periods of time when it’s not obvious to the teacher that anything is getting done.  You prioritize other classes, sports, college applications, etc. ahead of the project.  Project milestones are sometimes late.

What “D” or “F” work looks like:  Little or no progress.  Far less than four hours per week.  It makes no sense to do “D” or “F” work on an elective course like this one.  You will be counseled to drop the class.

Assignment #1 Read the Course of Study. This describes the class. Make one page of notes, handwritten,  that summarize the goals of this class. Due Friday August 28, 2015 by 4:00 PM. Please hand deliver a hard copy to Michael Wing in room 414.  Do this even if you took this class last year.

Assignment #2 Read the list of options for science fairs and academic competitions. Follow the links.  Make a big table that compares & contrasts the Marin County Secondary Science Fair and two others that most appeal to you. I have done the Marin fair below as an example; but I expect you to re-do it because the dates I’ve written are not this year’s. Due Friday September 4, 2015 by 4:00 PM. Please hand deliver a hard copy of the table to Michael Wing in room 414.  Do this even if you did it last year.

Name, Address: Marin County Secondary Science Fair http://www.marinschools.org/Student%20Competitions/Pages/Science-Fair—Secondary.aspx 
Eligibility: Grades 7-12, Marin County public or private school students.
Individuals or groups can enter, but groups cannot advance to the regional Bay Area Science Fair.
There are limits on how many entries can come from each school, but they are generous (Drake gets 30).
Due dates and where/when you have to go: THESE DATES ARE FROM A PREVIOUS YEAR! You will need to look up this year’s dates.

January 21, 2011: Project Proposal Form
February 4, 2011: Project Abstract and completion certification
March 7, 2011: Projects displayed and judged at the Bay Model in Sausalito
March 8-9, 2011: Public Viewing at the Bay Model in Sausalito.
March 10, 2011: Awards Ceremony at the Bay Model in Sausalito.

What they want to see: A traditional science project in life, physical, behavioral, environmental sciences, math, computers, or engineering.

Background, hypothesis, experimental procedure, controls, constants, data, conclusions.

Format is tri-fold poster, equipment on tabletop.

Other Notes: There are lots of restrictions on human test subjects and animal test subjects.

Assignment #3 Meeting. Consider some of Wing’s ideas for a project: After Labor Day, you should know what you want to do.  Have a face-to-face meeting with Wing in room 414 during the week of September 7 – September 11 to tell him that.

Assignment #4   More meetings.  Before the end of September, you and Wing will agree to and write down a document that spells out the specifics of what an “A” will look like for the rest of the year.  Among other things it could specify how often you collect data, how much data you will collect per month or per marking period, how many graphs you will construct or reports you will write, how many training sessions you will attend and when, how many books you will read and how many people you will interview, where you will submit your data, what science fairs/contests you will enter, and/or what else you will do with your data.

Animal Projects:

  • Interested in studying elephant seals at the Point Reyes National Seashore? Drake High began doing this in 2011. This project will require you to spend about half a day at Point Reyes a couple of times per month all year. You may also become trained as an elephant seal docent. You will be studying seal demographics (ages, genders, populations, breeding), reading their tags, possibly even marking seals yourself. There is a limited number of spaces available on this project, so talk to Wing before you set your heart on this one.
  • Interested in mayflies, stoneflies, caddis larvae, and other stream bugs?  The Stroud Water Research Center’s Leaf Pack Network program is easy and fun to join.  You get a kit, put dry leaves in a mesh bag in a stream for several weeks (keep several in rotation) and identify and count the aquatic insects you find.  These are indicators of stream health, so you find out how good the water quality is without doing any chemistry.  You can compare streams.  You share your data with the network.  www.stroudcenter.org/lpn/
  • Tardigrades (also known as “Water Bears”) are little indestructible animals less than a millimeter long that live in moss, tree bark, lichen.  They can survive being dried out, heat, cold, pressure, even outer space!  There are a lot of cool projects you can do with them.  We have a book to get you started.   http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/science/the-tardigrade-water-bear.html?_r=0
  • Interested in Marine Biology?  You can participate in an environmental monitoring and education program for students, educators, and volunteer groups throughout California. Approximately 4,000 teachers and students along the coast of California are involved with the collection of rocky intertidal and sandy beach data as part of the LiMPETS network. : http://limpetsmonitoring.org/   Also, sea stars are dying from a mysterious disease.  Help monitor their health through www.sickstarfish.com/static/help.
  • Interested in studying bees or butterflies?  There could be a seasonal conflict with the Great Sunflower Project or the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project but maybe not if you started early.
  • Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology also has citizen science opportunities to study birds through their ebird and nestwatch projects.
  • Project Squirrel is a citizen science program about squirrels.  You record squirrel observations, and maybe even do experiments on wild squirrels by feeding them under controlled conditions.  You can design your own experiments, or do it their way.
  • The Marin  Municipal Water District needs Western Pond Turtle Observers and Volunteer Weed Watchers.  You can easily turn these volunteer activities into a science project, but the Pond turtle work has to be done in the spring, not the fall/winter.

Geography/ Earth Science / Environmental Science Projects:

  • Do you like beachcombing?  Do regular patrols of Point Reyes Beach collecting, counting, weighing and/or photographing plastic debris and the species of marine organisms that stick to it.  Categorize it according to type and origin (recreational, commercial fishing, from foreign ships, from Japan, etc.) and the marine life according to whether it is Japanese, open ocean or Californian.  You can compare your results to data previously obtained on California Coastal Cleanup Day. This project is interesting because the Japanese tsunami debris has already started to arrive in Oregon.  Maximenko and Hafner’s model (ocean current) suggests 2014, but Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham’s model (current + wind) indicates 2012.  Looks like Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham were wrong. See National Geographic January 2012.  Read more
  • You can also help monitor the human impact on Marine Protected Areas (coastline) with the Marin MPA Watch:  http://www.marinmpawatch.org/
  • Interested in monitoring the water quality and water chemistry of streams and lakes?  We have equipment to do it and some questions that are waiting to be answered.
  • Interested in Redwood Stumps left over from logging a long time ago?  Catalog and map them:  latitude, longitude, elevation, diameter at cut, height, notches?, fallen logs nearby? diameters of nearby standing trees, species of moss, lichen, fungi, etc. growing on them?  Redwood stumps are complete ecosystems, plus they are part of history.  Can you tell when/how often the logging took place?

Plant Projects:

Read about Drake High’s Alpine Cold Frame. Since the cold frame is inaccesible to us (because of snow) from September to June, it may not work for a project in this course. But maybe it will inspire an idea in you.

  • Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana) in Marin have blue/purple and white forms, as well as flowers that are in between.  They are all supposed to be one species, but are they?  It looks like the blue ones are shorter, with narrower leaves and favor sunny spots while the whiter ones nearby are taller, have wider leaves, and favor shade.  Make a few hundred measurements and use statistics to see if there really are two distinct populations.  Paint color swatches can help you score the colors.
  • If you have access to the Sierras (lodgepole pines), you might be able to extend our bristlesone pines project  to another species.
  • You can use native plants in National Parks to study climate change through the California Phenology Project.  Also there are Phenology Projects like Nature’s Notebook  , Project Budburst, and Calflora’s Observer.

Microbiology Projects:  Read about our Artificial Hypolith Project. Since we don’t expect results from this project for several years, this may not be a good fit for this course. But it may give you some ideas.

  • Do you like plankton?  We have a plankton net and microscopes, and pH and conductivity meters and other water quality testing equipment.  it would be interesting to measure the seasonal succession of plankton in a local body of water.
  • Interested in learning about lichens? We need lichenometry growth and succession curves for building stones of known historical age in Marin. Suitable for one person. (Olompali has 1911 garden stair capstone; 1880’s stone walls.  Lichen sensitive to Pb, pollution.  O’Roark’s Bench and other bench on coastal trail. Olema Cemetary. California Lichen Society Meetings at COM 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month.)

Astronomy Projects:

(Notice that most of these ideas are field-oriented and location specific. It is not easy today for a high school student working alone in the lab to make an original contribution to science. If you want to do lab work, we can help you make a connection with local science professionals. )

You are not limited to one of these ideas. We have lots of tools for science at Drake High and a budget to buy more.

Doc’s guide to making a winning science fair trifold poster:


State the problem and say why you are doing this project – why does it matter?  Cite at least one article, book, etc. that you read to put your work in context of what is already known about the question.

Hypothesis:  say why you think this.

Materials ListDetailed Experimental Procedure:  Spell out all the steps in doing the project.

BIG TITLE in the form of a QUESTION?

Results:  DATA goes here!  Show every measurement in both a table and a graph.  Include averages.

Include lots of PHOTOGRAPHS.  Some should show you or at least your hands doing the work.

Leave NO blank space!  This poster should be crowded with things.  Put colored borders around some of them.

Say what you found.  Put it in context of what is already known. Discuss whether the quality of you data is good enough to answer the question. .  Are there any follow-up measurements somebody else could do? 




list some books, articles, or web sites you had to read to get started.

Author | Teacher | Scientist