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.


The Ultimate Bubble Blowing Champion


Today’s my last day of winter break. I’m sure my students are just as excited to go back as I am (and are also secretly hoping for a snow day). That first day back is always a tough one. They (and I) have been staying up late and sleeping in for two weeks. With all those visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in our heads, there’s little room for biology. And BAM! We’re back to school.

I give me freshman a pretty easy transition back to class. We have a bubble blowing contest. But it’s not all fun and games…. they have to do a lab report. It’s a great way to review concepts we used last semester (ie. control variables, hypotheses, graphing) and get them a little sugared up to get through the day. Here’s the lab template my kids use:   Lab Write Up Template  They have this glued in to their lab notebooks so that it cannot get lost. Usually they write their reports on a separate paper but I think I’m going to have them type them on a GoogleDoc and share it with me this time.

I go to the dollar store and buy a bunch of different types of gum. Then I put them in groups of 2 or 3 and each group has to come up with their own hypothesis. Some will test different types, some different people. I even have had groups test the number of chews before blowing a bubble. Once each group has figured out how to blow their biggest bubble, the groups compete for the title of Ultimate Bubble Blowing Champion!

Last year's winner!

Last year’s winner!

So simple  and they have a lot of fun with it. Try it for yourself! Have other activities for the post-winter break blahs? Share them in the comments!

An Idea From My Students


As much time as we (teachers) spend looking for ideas, sometimes what we’re looking for is right under our noses! Here’s an example from my classroom….

We cover the environment at the very end of the year in my biology 1 (freshman) class. By this point in the school year, they are DONE with taking notes and listening to me. So I turn my class over to them. Students work in groups of 3 or 4. This year, for the first time, I assigned them to groups. I LOVED IT! They did not. haha! I always thought that they should work with people they get along with and see outside of school so they will get the project done. I put them in groups based on their abilities, not necessarily their grade in my class. And guess what? They complained for about 5 minutes, then got to work. All of them, not just one person per group. And, for the most part, the results were really good.

Anyway, back to the amazing student work I want to share. The assignment was to teach the class about an environmental issue. They had to explain the topic (cause, solution, impact on the US and the world). Then come up with a hands on activity for the rest of the class to do. They also had to build a visual aid that could be displayed to raise awareness on their topic. The picture above is from a group presenting about water pollution. They built a landscape with a hill and building out of a box and foil. They wanted to demonstrate how land pollution (ie. pesticides, oil, garbage) gets into the water. They put different colors of dry jello around the “land” to represent different pollutants, then sprayed the top with “rain” and let it run down the “mountain”. What the students saw was that all the colors ran into the “river” in the middle and mixed together to create dirty water.


Simple. Creative. Students could SEE the problem. Bravo students!