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Rebuilding SIR From the Ground Up

Written by Devika Prasad & Caitlyn Castillo

Since 1989, IMSA’s Student Inquiry and Research program has been guiding students in research, both on and off campus, with the goal of “increased knowledge, deeper understanding, and skill development”. IMSA’s inquiry-based academic philosophy results in students only having school four days a week, with Wednesday reserved as Inquiry days. This academic opportunity has allowed students to actively engage in their fields of interest and conduct undergraduate-level research while still in high school.

The SIR department went through a transition in leadership in the 2018-19 school year, providing a fresh start from the prior leadership of three years. IMSA teachers Dr. Don Dosch, Dr. Dave Devol, and Dr. Eric Smith from the biology, chemistry, and history departments, respectively, have stepped up to be the new head directors of the program.

We interviewed Dr. Don Dosch regarding his goals and struggles in directing the SIR program. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but everything printed has been approved by Dr. Dosch.

Q: What were the initial problems that you faced when you first took over the program?

A: “The first problem that I recognized was that I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve been working with students in SIRs for a very long time, Devol has as well, and so has Smith, but we really had no sense of the… the overwhelming need of students. I suppose when the program is running very smoothly year after year after year it becomes more routine, and you add students as they come to you. But we did not have a lot of contacts, and so it’s been all brand new.”

Q: You mentioned something about the overwhelming need of students. So you don’t think there are enough students involved in the program?

A: “I do not. I think we will double it next year. That’s a bold prediction!”

Q: How many students are in the program this year?

A: “I think we’re running about 130-ish kids. But I’m going to double it.”

Q: Does that count include students in internships?

A: “No, internships are completely separate from SIR. Although, I will say that there was been interest from the internship program to make that program much more like SIR in terms of student responsibilities. Students from last year wanted it to be on their transcripts, and for that to happen, it had to be a little more… academic.”

Q: You mentioned that we didn’t have many contacts. There have been rumors around campus that we’ve lost contacts, and that people don’t want to work with us. Is that true?

A: “Yes, that is correct. I had talked with some people who had been previously working with our students, and the sense that I get from that is that the expectations that students had under the previous leadership… could not be met.”

Q: Like what?

A: “Publishing. Publishing papers. And I can appreciate that. If a student has been working in a molecular biology lab one day a week, that’s not going to lead to publication. It’s just not.

One of the reasons I did volunteer was because there was not enough diversity in the choice that students had. Nobody in English was doing an SIR. Even though they used to do a lot. Nobody in History was doing an SIR in the past two or three years. Even though, before, they used to do a whole lot. Very few people on the science team could work under the restrictions of having to publish. Even internally, the program fell apart.”

“I understand the aim to publish. When you do science, you share your results, you share your knowledge with the community, and if you don’t do that you haven’t accomplished anything. However, when you’re sending a 17-year-old into a lab situation, you want them to have a great experience. In science that doesn’t always lead to quickly publishing. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad experience.”

Q: Have we had to rebrand after making changes to get back some of our lost contacts?

A: “I’ve had to do that. I’ve contacted some of the old mentors who would always be reliable, they’d take 4 or 5 kids every year. Those relationships will be born again.”

Q: Has it been hard to rebrand?

“It’s embarrassing. No, it’s not hard to rebrand. I think the program is good. But. the program was not always good. You just extend your apologies, because people were insulted. The old program was not respectful sometimes. And that was unfortunate.”

Q: Is there anything that the students don’t know but the faculty knows that you can tell us?

A: “In the science department, we have talked as a team, and 6 members of the science team are offering research programs starting in the fall of 2019. Each person can take up to 15 students! Didn’t I tell you I was going to double this program? We’ve been talking to the history department as well, but there are spots to fill. We are starting with science and history because historically those have been the two programs of IMSA that have done the most on-campus SIRs.

Everyone should be in an SIR. It’s ridiculous that we say no to people. And in past years, we’ve said no if your interests are in an area where you can’t publish.”

Q: What are your plans for IMSAloquium this year?

A: “I think some things we agree on are students presenting with posters. We agree that presentations are important. We agree that the freedom to visit your friends in their presentations is a good thing. How that all comes together? That’s where we still have to talk. IMSAloquium is an expensive day. We have to do it well, but we need to do it with an eye toward maintaining control over the total product. Printing is the most expensive part. Each poster costs $20.”

Q: What are some of the most difficult challenges you’re facing right now?

A: “Making the contacts is difficult. There are not enough people involved. We need to have someone to run the room here. We need staff. Between the three of us, we have other responsibilities. I’m half-time here. I have a class I need to teach. I have a responsibility to the science team. But I spend all of my time working on this stuff. But it’s okay! We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it was important work.”


Students’ Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Mandatory assignments have been very restrictive in the past years. You had to pass phase 1, phase 2, complete concept maps, etc. is that going to change?

A: “The phases were fantastic. It describes the scientific process. We like concept maps because we want you to engage fully in the experiment. The only way you can do that is if you understand the field. The one phase that we have difficulty with is requiring phase 5 – requiring publication.”

Q: There have been complaints about buses. What are the problems?

A: “Money. It costs $550 to send one bus off campus. Doesn’t matter where it goes. We have six buses. It’s the reality. I wouldn’t mind spending on another bus… but we have to get more sites. There are 12 different sites, and some of these sites have 1 or 2 people on it. I can’t afford to spend $550 to send one child. So we have to make a loop with several stops. And that makes the bus long sometimes.”

Q: Could trains be another option.
A: “I would not put a student on a train.”

Q: Why?

A: “Safety. It’s my name! EleMENT no longer puts students on trains either. We do not want students running around in Chicago looking for a train or bus. SIR is a school-sanctioned activity. Trains put the school in harm’s way. The school bus company takes responsibility for you once you leave the door. It’s a safety factor. The safety of IMSA students leaving this building is a serious control, and we will always run school buses. You are minors after all! And we have assumed responsibility for your safety.”

Q: There have been some rumors about Fermilab. Can you clarify?

A: “Fermi is a national laboratory. Access is restricted. They’re going to control who gets on campus and who doesn’t. The people who work there have jobs! And IMSA students are not their jobs. However, they like working with IMSA students – within reason. It’s unfortunate that there are students who want to work at Fermilab, but there are no positions – we don’t all get our way. I’ve been sending resumes over there, Devol’s been sending resumes.
But on the other hand, there are thirty students working there as of right now. You should see them coming back. They’re so tired, their eyes are all so heavy because all they do is code! But damn, their smiles are huge”

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