In the 36 years since high school teachers first became APA affiliate members, psychology has become one of the most sought-after subjects in secondary schools — and its popularity is still growing fast.

In 2011, 198,000 students took the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in psychology, more than double the number who took it in 2005, according to the College Board, which administers the program.

That demand is driven in part by the nation’s high school psychology teachers, who are developing new and dynamic ways to reach students, expand educational opportunities and connect with each other.

“I tell any teacher I meet that high school psychology is the single best subject there is,” says Steve Jones, chair-elect of APA’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS). “If your class isn’t one of the best classes at your school, there’s something wrong.”

Jones, a psychology teacher at City of Medicine Academy in Durham, N.C., is among the many high school teachers finding new ways to help students get the most out of psychology. In 2009, for example, he helped to launch the blog “Teaching High School Psychology” (Blogspot) to reach new instructors, connect existing ones and provide teaching resources. The blog fills a significant need, as many high school psychology teachers are trained in fields other than psychology. One of the most common questions posted on the blog is, “I just found out I’m teaching psych — can you help?”

“We offer current information, whether it’s something in the press about a new study, a resource or TV show, links to information, and oftentimes our slant on why it’s good and how we would use it,” says Jones. “We’re not ‘lesson-plan central.’ We’re a place for high school teachers, who seem to be overburdened doing more with less, to find information.”

Encouraging publication

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., high school psychology teacher Sheryl Freedman is building students’ interest in publishing psychology research. She has served as faculty adviser of the Whitman Journal of Psychology, a nationally recognized journal, edited by students who solicit work from their peers around the country.

“The editors review submissions and pick the three best pieces for the journal, topics that haven’t been covered before,” says Freedman. “They also write an article for the ‘Inside Psych’ section.” The journal is collaboratively edited by three students, as well as an online editor and two business managers, who apply during their junior years.

The journal exposes students to both the academic and practical sides of publishing, says Freedman, who adds that the students involved raise all the funds for the magazine themselves. “It’s a fully student-run operation, which I think is pretty cool,” Freedman says.

For Piya Chandramani, a senior and editor at the journal, the experience has meant the chance to do research in her chosen field and share her findings in a professional way. “I knew once I took the AP class that I wanted to get more involvement in and more exposure to psychology,” she says. Since joining the staff, she has written two articles for the journal, one on the psychology of terrorism (which she coauthored with another editor) and one investigating the mental and physical effects of meditation. The experience, she says, has affirmed her desire to major in psychology next year.

Real-world experience

More comprehensive real-world experience is offered at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md. There, AP psychology teacher Marie Smith, PhD, coordinates the school’s psychology internship program, a Montgomery County Public Schools-certified course that matches senior students with research opportunities that most college and graduate students would envy.

The program, now in its 10th year, allows students who have completed two semesters of AP psychology to receive course credit for internships in which they work with professionals in areas that appeal to them, such as the study of children, advertising, conflict resolution, health and sports.

The school’s proximity to the offices of the National Institute of Mental Health in nearby Bethesda is a boon to the program. Students work for one, two or three course periods per week, providing lab assistance to researchers who are mapping brain neurons in chimpanzees or working to find new treatments for mental health conditions. Other students intern at the local police station, where they study criminology, or at St. Luke’s House, a day center for individuals with schizophrenia, where under the supervision of the staff psychiatrists, they help patients socialize and get work.

Students get academic credit for their work, and Smith receives regular reports from supervisors and the students themselves. The response has been enthusiastic, and not just from the kids, she says. “Colleges like to see unique experience from applicants,” says Smith.

Game on

High school teachers in Illinois have been building a buzz about psychology through a regional Psychology Bowl they developed to help students prepare for the AP exams. Laura Brandt, chair of social studies at Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake, Ill., and her colleagues first organized this academic quiz-show-style tournament nine years ago. The bowl’s teams have up to 10 student members and the competition is broken into two rounds. In the first round, each student is given a number. All the No. 1s have to try to answer the same question, then the No. 2s and so on. “This way, everyone on the team gets to answer a question,” says Brandt. “It serves as an equalizer.” The answers, to questions from past AP exams, are judged by a panel of teachers.

This is followed by a round-robin style “buzzer round,” in which randomly selected teams compete against each other and the clock until two teams remain for the finals. The bowl has grown over the years, from five teams to 12 from all over the state.

“It’s a friendly competition, but the students get really into it,” says Brandt. “We have a silly first-place trophy that they put together, with a metal man holding a brain, and the second-place team gets a Sigmund Freud action figure.”

Honoring students with promise

The growing interest in high school psychology has prompted several teachers to find ways to recognize student achievement through nationally recognized societies. Psi Beta, which honors psychology students in community colleges, is looking into creating a national high school honor society.

“It has been done in English in high schools and is very successful,” says Psi Beta Executive Director Jerry Rudmann.

Modeled on Psi Beta and Psi Chi, the society would establish merit awards for high school students, support advanced research opportunities and recognize good scholarship. Rudmann notes that such a program would also carry weight with college applications and show students that their work has relevance beyond the classroom. “Psi Chi and Psi Beta chapters are always looking for strong leaders, for students who can come in and serve as officers,” he says. “This would be a great pipeline.”

The proposal is still in planning stages, and Rudmann is seeking funding for the idea. But the interest, he points out, is already in place, as Kimberly Patterson, a social studies teacher at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., can attest. In addition to teaching psychology, Patterson heads the Psi Alpha Beta Psychology Honor Society, which has 150 students and is in its second year.

“As public school teachers, we’re used to doing things without funding, so we decided to just run with it,” Patterson says. The society is applying for nonprofit status and has drafted a constitution.

Psi Alpha Beta grew out of the school’s psychology club, which Patterson advised. The group has developed and organized such activities as “Eating Disorder Awareness Week,” a psychology science fair, collaborations with local college programs and a summer institute for students interested in extending their AP education.

The point, says Patterson, is to inspire her students to think beyond high school. “It’s important that they really dig into what psychology is, and what they can do with it.”

Emily Wojcik is a writer in Northampton, Mass.