Science Literacy for Modern Students

When I look back at my own education, I had no intention of studying science (let alone teaching it). But what I always have loved is reading and writing. I can remember writing stories on my parents type writer, and I have no idea where they found the patience to read draft after draft after draft of these stories. I used to read next to my nightlight when I was supposed to be sleeping (huge rebel, I know). And as I got older and went through high school and college, I still loved to read and writing continued to be a strength of mine. But somewhere along the road, I ended up in science land. I wanted to know why and how the world worked. But as any science teacher can tell you, reading about science (whether a fictional story or informational texts) is tough. And it is even tougher the first few times you do it. But it does get easier as you learn to do it. And so here I am, teaching science classes but emphasizing the importance of literacy.

Science literacy has kind of become a soapbox of mine. I’ve written a few grad papers on its importance and ways to improve it. Most of the research focuses on reading, and understandably so. That’s how scientists have shared their information for centuries. I have written several posts here on different techniques I use (“But this isn’t english class.”, Updates to Biology Reading DaysMaking Biology Real) to improve students’ reading skills in science, so I won’t repeat that information here. I want to focus this post on how science literacy is different (and in some ways easier) than it was in the past and how we, teachers, can help our students.

More and more people are getting their scientific information from videos and podcasts. It’s just so easy to access. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand. Giving kids a link to a video and expecting them to be able to make sense of and analyze it is pretty unrealistic in most cases. It’d be the same as giving them a science text as saying “see you at the end”. So I created these note sheets that my students use when watching videos. It gives them a structure to follow and tells them what to look and listen for. Depending on the video, sometimes I change “Dates, People, & Places” to “Important Information”.

video notes 2

After they finish the video, they write a one paragraph response. They have to include details from the video, not just address it as a whole (“this is confusing/great/dumb/interesting”). Having details right in front of them on their sheet makes this task much easier. I’ve also found that they like watching the videos individually (I’m lucky enough to teach in a 1-to-1 school) as opposed to as a class because they can pause whenever they need to.

video notes 3

Sometimes I assign these as homework, sometimes I give them time in class. But either way, there’s one more important step if you truly want to improve science literacy and not just have them recite dates/events/facts. They need to discuss the video with their peers. What I have experienced is that students are much more comfortable discussing if they have their thoughts and questions written in front of them. Sometimes we do this as a class, sometimes I group them based on the questions they wrote. You could also use this discussion as a way to start or enhance a research project.

video notes 1

And then there’s podcasts. I use the note sheets for those as well, but they’re a whole other beast. I will write a follow up post about that!

So  what I have found is that just like we have to teach them to read science, we also have to teach kids to listen to science. We have to give them structures and guide them on what to listen for, but they are more than capable. And most kids prefer getting their information from the videos instead of a reading (which has increased effort and work completion).  Give it a shot.

Here are some of the videos that I love to use. If you have suggestions of video or podcasts, I’d love to hear them!

Bad Blood (PBS)

In the Shadow of Ebola

Ted: The Case for Engineering our Food

Ted: Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously.