Preparing for a STEM Degree as a Homeschooler
When I graduated high school as an independent homeschooler, I knew exactly what I wanted the next steps of my education to look like. I was going to march straight up the academic, scientific path: bachelor’s degree, then maybe an MS, and on to a PhD. How to get there? On that, I had no idea. Here’s some stuff that worked for me – and things I wish I did! – as a homeschooled high schooler.
Read everything. Get a readable textbook, and check your library for the latest bestsellers in popular science. It’s probably a good idea to start trying your hand at the peer-reviewed literature, too. The website for the prestigious journal PNAS has a page dedicated to their classic papers (think: Hubble’s Law, or the discovery of jumping genes.) The original papers are accompanied with blogs and commentaries on them, which serve as a nice primer before diving into the actual papers.
I’m a big fan of kitchen-based science! And the once-a-week lab sessions offered at your local co-op. But – this is important – science is not an elective. It’s a deep subject, and (all respect to the homeschool moms I met there), an hour every Wednesday spent spinning eggs and shooting rockets isn’t going to cut it for students interested in taking science into their careers.
Consider dual credit at your local community colleges, favoring the lab-based classes with actual Eppendorf tubes and serological pipettes (learning the jargon of a lab was half the struggle when I started). Try reaching out to local universities and see if there are graduate students willing to tutor or participate in outreach events. Public high schools often set up career panel and STEM week events that their local university students volunteer for – see if your co-op or other homeschooling group is interested in organizing something similar. I also tutored for a homeschool family during my Master’s – the mom had emailed staff at the university science department, asking for a grad student who’d like to teach her son math and science. If you live in a college town, it might be a great option to seek out tutoring or mentorship from local university grad students.
If you want to get a PhD or MS in science, good news! They will pay you for your research.
On the flip side of that, since your professor is technically hiring you, they will also want to hear about your research experience and any publications you’ve participated in. These sorts of things can be done at a university with appropriate research capacity, and if that’s the route you take for your first degree, take advantage of the professors, labs, and potential internships you have available there.
If, like me, you’d rather do the online thing, you may have to pursue a non-thesis, coursework-only graduate degree (i.e., no paycheck), take a break in between the undergraduate and graduate degrees for lab experience, or both. Either way, reach out and learn from the scientists you meet.
In high school, try for internships or summer jobs in a lab. High schoolers can also volunteer for STEM events like science fairs, museum outreach, or library-offered community classes for younger students. This looks great on a transcript and shows you care!
Guess what? Biology is not a science for people who don’t like math. Especially today, biology is moving increasingly in a computational direction. At the very least, you’ll need to be able to interpret data in graphs, and use basic math at the lab bench.
This complements literally any science you want to do. After high school statistics, no one will ask you to calculate standard deviation by hand. They will have you write out a script to get one. If, as a future researcher, you want to predict the behavior of electrical or ecological systems, you will also need to code. Statistics, data analysis, and mathematical modeling all require it.
There’s lots of free online resources to learn how to program. Python is a popular language – and it’s free! – so you can quickly and cheaply set up an environment on your home computer to work with.
Don’t be afraid to just start with the basics here! Computer science is a world where nothing makes sense and then suddenly, everything does. It takes time to become familiar, so any high school introduction will help you with your future classes.
Statistics is for every scientist. Calculus is required for physicists and chemists, but still ideal for everyone. Linear algebra will save you if you go deep into coding or data analysis.
Chemistry may not be as big on math as, say, physics, but there is a logical way of thinking to solve its problems. Even biology should (hopefully) include more than just rote memorization. Seek out curricula that don’t just tell you science, but seek to engage you, pushing you to think deeper about implications and the scientific method.
Piecing it All Together
Try to organize your high school STEM courses in ways that complement each other. For example, chemistry informs a lot of biology (especially on the cellular level). Physics and calculus are a joy to take together! Subjects like ecology, oceanography, or astronomy might surprise you in piecing unrelated concepts together.
Homeschooling is a great option for K-12 students, especially for independent learners who want to take control of their education and where they want it to take them! With some research and planning, you can prepare for a STEM major – and STEM beyond an undergraduate degree – as a homeschooler.
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