Your life’s work is in front of you. A metal contraption that has traveled the farthest reaches of space and scooped up a piece of alien rock. By some miracle, it has made it back to you. Your mind races as you ponder its contents. Could it have the very ingredients that started life on Earth? What if it held microscopic life itself? How would you know? Overcome with anticipation, you slowly reach for the lid…
Science is a subject where advancements and newsworthy events happen on a regular basis. Whether it’s a new technology, an exciting discovery, or an effort by the science community to better understand the world around us, finding an example of science in the news is not difficult. By the same token, it’s important that we make an effort to bring science current events into our classroom. They expose students to the idea that science is not a static topic. It’s a burgeoning and evolving field that can have a direct influence on their lives.
If we’re lucky, students might see science as a career path that provides opportunities for creative problem-solving and curious mindsets. Similarly, science is a pursuit that involves real people. Their personal stories are often much more complicated, messy, and interesting than simple, commonly held interpretations.
When bringing a science news story to my students, I’ve noticed that how I present the event affects their interest level. When I simply share the complete story, the “who, what, when, and where,” through an article or a presentation, I notice a lack of engagement from my learners. Hearing about a current event in this manner is a passive experience. It’s a collection of facts that might be interesting to know, but I’ve found that very few of my students had a desire to investigate further or remember the story beyond the initial presentation.
I’ve observed that students were much more captivated when teasing out elements of the story to create an active, first-person journey. Curriculum experts Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins frame lessons through “essential questions” in their book, Understanding by Design, and author Richard Koniceck-Moran created his book series, Everyday Science Mysteries, using just such an approach.
When students are invited to explore a topic as a set of questions to be answered or a mystery to be solved, their approach to an event is more purposeful. Here’s a four-part formula that I’ve found to develop a little mystery when sharing a science current event.
1. Build Out a First-Person Narrative
The opening paragraph of this blog post elaborates on a significant science event that took place in the fall of 2023: the return of rock samples from the asteroid Bennu. Rather than simply communicating the objective facts of the story, students are encouraged to experience the event as a protagonist. Learners might see themselves as the main character in a movie, video game, or graphic novel.
I think it’s appropriate to take some creative liberties when developing this first-person narrative. Incorporating the emotions and sensations that a person might feel while experiencing the event is more entertaining. These give connection points that an objective summary of facts simply wouldn’t provide.
2. Find a Relatable Aspect of the Story
A science news event does not occur in a vacuum. It has components that can impact a student’s daily life or align with their personal interests. Boil the story down to that essential aspect that learners can latch on to. Did a poisonous acid leak out of a crashed train? Is a rogue algae releasing toxins that make drinking water dangerous? Are patches of snow in Antarctica turning bright green and red?
These are all overarching questions I’ve pulled from news stories that I shared in my classroom. I might drum up interest and curiosity by asking students to consider relatable questions that connect with the event. “Do you believe life exists somewhere other than Earth? What ingredients do you, as a scientist, think would be required?” This practice allows students to integrate new factual information into their current mental models.
3. Don’t Reveal The Full Story
I’ve made the mistake of presenting a news story as a complete set of facts with a logical beginning, middle, and end. If students view the science current event as an issue that has been resolved, it requires no further exploration. Tease out parts of the story. Pause to ask questions. What would the students do if they were faced with this problem or asked to design a solution?
In a lesson that involves observing species of algae under the microscope, I present students with a news event where a community’s drinking water is tainted by an algal bloom. I don’t offer how experts solved this problem. Instead, the students are tasked with discovering the algae culprit through direct observation and independent research. Incidentally, I noticed much greater buy-in from my students when I framed the lesson around a news event compared with having the students make observations in isolation.
4. Model the Science
In the age of Google, the habit of simply looking up the answer to a mystery deprives students of grappling with a meaningful experience. What can students model or design on their own to replicate the science behind the story? Can they create a fluid cell membrane to emphasize the importance of water in living things? Can they diagram, explore, or collect their own information?
When I presented a news event regarding melting ice caps, I gave my students the opportunity to investigate how this process can disrupt salt water density. Dyed ice cubes, a tank of salt water, and a thermometer could inspire a realistic model replicating changing ocean salinity as glaciers melt.
Science current events provide an opportunity to appreciate and replicate ingenuity in the field. Scientists make their contributions by actively exploring the natural world, finding problems to solve, and documenting their results. By sharing the open-ended and emotionally charged perspectives of science stories presented in the news, we’re inviting the learners to participate in this very human pursuit.