Middle School Science Literacy: Getting Students to Deeper Thinking
Julie Humphrey has a background in electrical and bio-engineering. She worked at General Motors, the University of Michigan, and Nicolet Biomedical, before she turned her efforts towards STEM education in 1999. Currently a middle school science teacher at Oakland School for the Arts in Oakland, California, she has seen a drop in enthusiasm as her female students enter middle school and is concerned that this is where we lose a large number of future scientists. Through her Mills Teacher Scholar’s inquiry, she sought to learn methods for increasing student engagement while deepening student content knowledge, supporting all students to remain excited and curious about science.
“I was embarrassed, just like Darwin many times….” my 7th grade focal student wrote during our Theory of Evolution unit. This student, who previously reported not really “getting science,” clearly connected with Darwin’s life and times. But was there science in her response?
I believe that engagement can be measured when students have learned curriculum deeply enough to be able to apply it. So at the beginning of the last school year, I covered traditional introductory life science topics and then assigned journal-based writing that would not only require students to display their new knowledge, but also give them the opportunity to apply it.
When studying nutrition, students read articles on eating styles: omnivore, vegetarian and vegan. I asked them to choose one of the options – and defend that choice. Many students used direct quotes from the articles as the only evidence for their choice. I had hoped to see “comparing and contrasting” about the benefits and drawbacks of their choices but, in most cases, the writing did not exhibit an understanding of all the options and the impact that each choice might have on their life and health.
After reflecting with my Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues on the poor responses, I realized that the problem was not that the students couldn’t think deeply, but that they needed more guidance in getting there.
I made another attempt at promoting deep thinking during our unit on genetics. After students completed a research project on randomly assigned genetic diseases, I gave them an article to read on “Living with Hemophilia” from the weekly NY Times Science section, which features 3 people who either had hemophilia or lived with someone with hemophilia.
Like Hansel and Gretel, leaving breadcrumbs to guide themselves back home, I posed leading questions to help students analyze the plights of the three people with hemophilia. The first question required knowledge from the article, the second asked them to compare and contrast the situations of the people in the article and, finally, the last question required them to decide which subject had the most difficult life. This time their writing was more insightful, but many of their answers were still limited – again answering questions by quoting directly from the article and repeatedly using the single phrase that “life [with hemophilia] would be difficult.”
I was looking for complex answers that would bring together multiple aspects of living with a genetic condition. For example, I had hoped that students would combine their knowledge of acquiring a genetic disease (inherited from your parents or through an incident during gestation), with empathy for someone’s life situation (living with a chronic condition or raising a child with a chronic condition), and other related concerns (being exposed to other diseases, frequent trips for medical attention, limited activities, shortened life span) – all ideas that would have evolved from the research they had done on their individual genetic diseases.
I spoke with another science teacher about my frustration over the shallow answers I was receiving. She pointed out that one technique I often use to increase engagement was to include an element of personal involvement in all of my assignments, whether we are designing experiments using earthworms, studying the cell or learning squid physiology through dissection. I decided to really capitalize on this feature of my teaching to see if I could increase student understanding at a deeper level.When we arrived at the topic of evolution, we learned about Darwin and the times that he lived in. I again designed a reflection piece that included “bread crumb-ed” questions, with one leading to another, deepening the thinking with each “ask.” Students were to consider how Darwin’s background led to his discoveries and why it was hard for him to reveal these discoveries to the world. The culmination of the writing asked students to think about times that they felt the way they imagined Darwin might have felt. Students wrote revealing paragraphs about feeling embarrassed, misunderstood based on their beliefs, or not taken seriously. They had stepped into Darwin’s shoes on a personal level.
My reasoning was that if students did not understand the Theory of Evolution, they would not understand why it would be so difficult for society to accept these ideas, and would not accurately imagine how Darwin might have felt. By relating Darwin’s frame of mind to their own experiences, the theory became more real to them, thus more fully cementing it in their minds. The student quoted at the beginning of this piece not only had some understanding of Darwin, the person, but was also able to demonstrate an understanding of evolution on a final assessment. There was indeed science in this response.
My process through the school year went from simply posing higher-level questions for my students without much preparation, to “bread-crumbing” the questions to get them to a deeper level. When I added a final question that related directly to them personally, the students’ thinking went even deeper. The success of this assignment, near the end of the school year, made me resolve to add in a personal reflection piece to each of my unit assessments in the future, preceded by carefully scaffolded questions. My future work will be to become better at providing assessments that allow students to fully demonstrate and apply their new science knowledge.