In mid-April, Dr. Kristin Cook and Dr. Elizabeth Dinkins of Bellarmine’s School of Education traveled to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, the largest and most prestigious gathering of scholars in the field, to present their joint project on how to improve the teaching of literacy in science.
They talked about zombies.
OK, that’s not all they talked about. They also discussed The Hunger Games.
Wait just a minute, you might be thinking. You said “educational.” You said “scholars.” How do zombies and dystopian teen fiction fit into that conversation?
Many science teachers (and teachers in general) have those same misgivings, Dr. Cook said. Popular fiction isn’t viewed as “academic” enough to include in formal instruction. “Maybe for pure enjoyment, or as an add-on, but nothing serious or graded,” she said. But the thing is, she added, other research shows that when middle and high school students talk about their understanding of science, they refer to pop culture.
“We know they are interested in film, they’re interested in adolescent literature, they’re interested in music – and this creates a set of literacy practices that they engage in outside of school,” Dr. Dinkins added. “To motivate kids, you want to leverage as much of their own interests as possible in the classroom.”
So Drs. Cook and Dinkins decided to collaborate on a class in which pre-service science teachers selected a popular culture text they believed could engage students and be a springboard to scientific content, and then produce a lesson plan to bring into their future classrooms. The five students enrolled in Dr. Dinkins’ Reading in the Content Areas course in fall 2013 agreed on two books: World War Z by Max Brooks and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. They examined the zombie phenomenon through the former and genetic engineering through the latter.
Obviously, zombie culture is not part of the Next Generation Science Standards or the Common Core. “But pathogens and germ theory and that sort of stuff that underscores how things get transferred from one individual to the next through disease mechanisms are,” Dr. Cook said. “So we were happy with those selections.”
The students didn’t use just the pop-culture texts, of course. They mined the books for scientific concepts and then connected them to non-fiction reading. “For example, we had one student who went to the CDC to pull articles about viral pathogens and how things spread,” Dr. Dinkins said. Others found articles about genetics and the science behind genetics and genetic engineering. “The popular culture text acted as a starting point for them to get students to think more critically.”
The key, the Bellarmine researchers said, is separating the science from the science fiction. And topics aren’t difficult to find in the literature and films aimed at adolescents today – think Interstellar, The Maze Runner and the Divergent series, for instance.
“So much is going on with science fiction right now in popular culture,” Dr. Cook said. “And we want to know, well, what’s real in that? Is that really happening? We look at The Hunger Games – what is the degree to which we are doing genetic engineering?”
Just that morning on NPR, she said, she had heard a report about researchers who had genetically engineered sperm and egg DNA. “That has been like an untouched thing,” she said. “You could use stem cells, you could use other cells, but not the sperm and the egg. … We’ve been at the brink of huge changes for so long and now we’re getting into that territory. Well, that has huge implications for society. It’s an ongoing, interesting discussion – one that students really need to be aware of.”
Teaching literacy is particularly tricky for science teachers. Some may err on the side of too much reading or writing, leaving little time for hands-on experiments. Too much focus on experiments, however, can shortchange students’ ability to read texts, understand and interpret diagrams and figures, and evaluate the credibility of claims being made. Happily, Dr. Cook, said, the Next Generation Science Standards (which themselves sound like a Star Trek series), released in 2013, take a more balanced approach.
And instead of emphasizing “writing across all contents,” the new standards also acknowledge that writing requirements differ from one subject to another, Dr. Dinkins said. “So when we talk about literacy in science, we talk really specifically about what students need to be able to write as part of their scientific knowledge: lab reports, descriptive writing, explanatory writing; being able to make a claim and then support it with evidence. Description in language arts is going to be a different demon than description in science.”
Ultimately, they said, scientific literacy means more than learning a list of facts. It means learning to think critically and being able to use scientific knowledge to interpret the world around us.
“From a science perspective, we have so many decisions that are made for us – by scientists, by politicians – that we don’t have a voice in,” Dr. Cook said. “We could, potentially, if we learn what’s going on and we understand the vehicles to make our voice heard. I really am motivated as a science teacher to think about that nexus point of science and society.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org