Teaching About Science in the News

Tenth graders in Kathryn Kennedy’s science class at Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, discuss current events related to a Bioethics unit. Photo credit: Kathryn Kennedy

“To be a good science teacher, it’s important to keep on top of the latest news and innovations in science,” says Dean Goodwin, grades 9–12 biology and environmental science teacher at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. “If any of this can be related to topics we have just covered, or are about to cover, or is just an amazing piece of science news, I share [it] with my classes…My aim is to ensure that students understand that science is not at all static, but we are continually learning and expanding our knowledge in science…It also helps to separate some of the misinformation about science that seems to abound in some areas of the media…The students question, and critically think, about what is presented.”

Goodwin says he aims to “[get] students energized to differentiate between science fact and science fiction” by comparing “what pops up on Facebook” to legitimate science news sources like the National Science Foundation. Sometimes he has students design and conduct their own experiments based on ones they’ve read about in the news—such as the 2013 experiment by ninth graders in Denmark to test the effect of cellphone radiation on a plant—and compare their data with the data they read about. “I want to get students to think and behave like scientists,” he explains. “I want them to have the courage to [test a seemingly] crazy idea. This is what scientists do.”

Goodwin has designed—and will teach next year—two trimester elective courses that incorporate current events. In Science Today, students will research science news from journals, websites, television, radio, and social media and analyze the authenticity of the news sources. They’ll discuss the science behind the news and learn how to differentiate between real science and junk science.

Students taking The Science of Climate Change will use websites to keep abreast of the latest effects of climate change on the planet and produce materials that will be disseminated through the school’s 350DE at Tatnall climate education group, which is also the Delaware chapter of 350.org, an international environmental organization that publicizes the increasing levels of carbon dioxide to encourage world leaders to address climate change. Tatnall students worked with Goodwin to found 350DE at Tatnall. “This is a very passionate group of students who want to correct bad information about science,” he observes.

When she taught high school science, Kathryn Kennedy says she “constantly saw the need to include current events in my lessons, to give students the big picture in science.” This was especially important in her Bioethics unit, which touched on issues like “should stem cell research be conducted, whether individuals should be able to refuse medical assistance due to religious conflict, [and] whether or not paralympians should be able to compete in the Olympics.” Students “practiced creating logical responses using evidence…to support their argument on an issue,” she adds. The unit helped them “determine what they valued,” that “others have different opinions, and why,” and that “they can have an opinion based on their values, but they need to look at scientific evidence to justify [it].”

Kennedy, now senior laboratory supervisor for the General Chemistry labs at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, is creating The Periodical Table (TPT; refer to https://goo.gl/6stfPa), a website for middle and high school teachers with lessons that incorporate current events, reading resources, and eventually, science-themed books. TPT’s lessons include Climate Change as a National Security Issue, in which students read the transcript of a National Public Radio interview of Retired Brigadier General Gerald Galloway about how climate change will affect the military in protecting Americans at home and abroad. Students then analyze the enacted 2016 budget and requested 2017 budget for the Department of the Defense. “It is powerful to tell students to keep up with current events so they can vote responsibly and be informed citizens,” she maintains.

To prepare her students to discuss controversial news topics, Kathleen Chesmel, ninth-grade physics teacher at New Egypt High School in New Egypt, New Jersey, has them conduct peer reviews of their projects. “We work on drafting comments that help improve the work being reviewed and avoid focusing on personal attacks or statements [unsubstantiated by] evidence…Once they have become comfortable with peer review (both giving and receiving), it is easier to allow open discussions of [these topics],” she explains.

Sensitive topics arise “as part of my science news class opener,” says Diana Allen, seventh-grade life/environmental science teacher at Sanford Junior High School in Sanford, Maine. From “a list of well-known science news websites” she has vetted, she invites students “to find a sci/tech–based article that is of interest to them…Then they [briefly summarize it] and what about it [that] interested them.” During discussions, she highlights “careers being touched upon in the article” to get students to begin exploring career options, she notes.

Science news engages students “in some of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) practices,” says Allen. “I’m doing more media literacy” since the NGSS were developed, she adds. The “three-dimensional learning [of the NGSS] brings about more independent student thinking.”

“Current events are incorporated in specific units” in grades K–6 science, says Ana Appel, associate director of Lower School Science at Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn, New York. In a fifth-grade unit, for example, “we will be framing one performance expectation (PE) around current events in global warming and climate change.” Students will do “a case study on Rachel Carson and the creation of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and compar[e] it to the recent hearings of [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt before the Senate subcommittee. Students have already learned about global warming and will be able to relate this to the idea of Earth’s resources and the environment.”

Next, students will “read about communities that are currently intervening to protect the resources and environment from recent news sources…and learn to differentiate about community impact on a local, regional, national, and international level (the clarification statement for the PE),” Appel explains.

“I find it is important to connect science to policy” using current events, Appel contends. “I recently held a professional development with my teachers on how to teach policy and science while remaining unbiased. I used a video clip and had teachers analyze how the politicians discussed science using opinion versus fact and how this plays out in the classroom. We then discussed how to best teach our scholars to develop their own opinions about difficult concepts that impact laws, especially when we have our own opinions.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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One Comment

  1. Bekah
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Wow! What a great idea to compare facebook posts to real articles in science news. Another teacher and I were talking about how students are forgetting that everything they read on facebook is not necessarily true. We even discussed putting up the picture of Steven Spielberg next to the dead triceratops. Facebook comments talked about how inhumane it was and how wrong Steven was for killing the beast; how silly to think that dinosaurs are still alive!

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