Lowell hosts its first research competition for middle schoolers

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Social studies teacher Matthew Bell, junior Natalie Bunimovitz, and sophomores Dreissy Sop Reyes and Madison Wong. Photo courtesy of Natalie Bunimovitz

“I just love narwhals so much,” said Brody Andrews, a seventh grade student at Marina Middle School.

Andrews had the chance to take his interest in the marine mammal to another level as he was the winner of the first ever Lowell Investigate Research Competition, held in February, for middle school students.

This competition brought together 15 students from public middle schools around the city, featuring 12 projects on the general topic of “migration.”

Students each had a poster in hand and a presentation ready as they stationed themselves in various classrooms throughout the Lowell building while their parents and teachers came in and out, observing each project.

Research competitions that allow students to share their work with professionals are available to high schoolers, but similar opportunities seem to be rare for middle schoolers.

A panel of judges, made up of various Lowell students and teachers, judged the presentations based on how they displayed their information and their ability to come up with a comprehensive plan for research.

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Andrews chose to explore the effects of climate change on narwhal migration.

“I was thinking of things to do that might set me apart within the theme of migration,” Andrews said. The idea of narwhals kept coming back to him.

From there, Andrews went on to create a hypothesis that climate change would have negative effects for the narwhals, including slower travel, food loss, and confusion. The narwhals would be unsure when they could leave from and arrive at their migratory locations.

“I wanted to give back because I was very surprised to find that opportunities in a similar vein are not offered to young people.”

The idea of a middle school research competition was first pitched in the spring of last year by Lowell junior Natalie Bunimovitz. Having participated in several research competitions in her high school years, including one at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bunimovitz wanted to do something more than continue competing herself.

Research competitions that allow students to share their work with professionals are available to high schoolers, but similar opportunities seem to be rare for middle schoolers.

“I wanted to give back because I was very surprised to find that opportunities in a similar vein are not offered to young people,” Bunimovitz said. Under the mentorship of her social studies teacher, Matthew Bell, she and sophomores Madison Wong and Dreissy Sop Reyes were able to form a plan to begin a competition of their own.

Bunimovitz, Wong, Sop Reyes and Bell wanted an opportunity for middle school students to practice research and science skills in a way that would prepare them for the challenges of future classes in that field. They also wanted to reach out to schools like Willie Brown and Visitacion Valley that are typically underrepresented at Lowell.

“[Sinasohn] had a great story to tell and it was one of those projects that made us think, ‘Wow, we did good today.’”

Migration was picked as an open-ended theme to encourage students to study something they were eager to learn about. Although the lack of structure was a bit confusing at first, according to a parent of one of the competing middle schoolers, the students were able to benefit from the flexibility.

“We wanted something that could be related to both the humanities and the physical sciences,” Bunimovitz said, “so people could decide what they wanted to focus on.”

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Though a majority of the projects took a biology approach like Andrews’s, the second place winner, Sara Sinasohn, focused on movements of the Jewish people, demonstrating a humanities take on the subject. “[Sinasohn] was passionate about it, and knew what she was talking about,” Bell said when describing how this project stood out to him. “She had a great story to tell and it was one of those projects that made us think, ‘Wow, we did good today.’”

Bunimovitz and Bell said that Lowell Investigate was not made just to be like another science fair. It was made to allow kids to explore a topic that they are interested in.

“This is one of the few concrete measures that we have really taken to make Lowell a more inclusive and diverse space.”

The prompt for the competition was designed in a way that would allow an application of skills to make meaning of a concept in their own way.

Recently, Bell has been involved in the development of new curriculum-mapping that has helped define the updated standards for the state. This new curriculum emphasizes and hones the ability of a student to pull significance from provided information, according to Bell. The role of the teacher is to give the students information regarding a general concept. The student then constructs a response that allows them to develop ideas and build knowledge to gain a deeper understanding.

Since the competition was created in part to spread the word about Lowell to underrepresented schools, it also helped expose students from those schools to the Lowell community.

Many people see Lowell as being exclusive, which may cause them not to apply. Bell and the rest of the founders hope that this will change. “We have not really seen a positive, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re doing proactively to change the situation’ approach,” Bell said when asked about the future of Lowell Investigate. “This is one of the few concrete measures that we have really taken to make Lowell a more inclusive and diverse space.”

This competition will hopefully serve as the gateway to a more welcoming Lowell environment. “I’m incredibly proud of how successful this event was,” Bunimovitz said. “Hopefully we can expand it to make it even more successful in the future.”