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Science in the Classroom Prepares Instructors to Teach New Research

Participants in a Science in the Classroom workshop
Participants in the Science in the Classroom workshop take part in a hands-on activity to prepare them to use primary literature as a teaching tool. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Science instructors are returning to the classroom this fall equipped to use newly published scientific research into their lessons after taking part in a workshop held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science in the Classroom program.

Thirty high school and college science instructors participated in the August professional development workshop at AAAS headquarters that introduced them to Science in the Classroom’s primary literature resources and guided them on applying these methods in their own classrooms to enhance students’ understanding of scientific concepts, the contemporary practice of science and the real people behind scientific breakthroughs.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to using primary literature as an instructional tool, said Shelby Lake, Science in the Classroom’s director of strategy and content. Students gain understanding of science concepts and practices when learning from primary literature, which also offers them a chance to experience a more in-depth understanding of cutting-edge work.

“You don’t need to wait for it to be canonized and put into a textbook,” said Lake.

Yet using primary literature in the classroom comes with challenges: Complicated technical jargon and advanced methodologies may be impenetrable to readers who are not already experts, Lake said.

To address such concerns, Science in the Classroom has built a freely available online library of primary literature from the Science family of journals. To make the work more readily understandable, volunteers – graduate students, postdocs and others with relevant advanced degrees – annotate the papers with notes and comments, which serve as “scaffolding” for students and other non-specialists to navigate the article, said Lake.

The annotations, which are overlaid onto the paper, can include a recap of previous work on the topic, a glossary of terms used in the article, more information about the paper’s experiments and results, and links to news coverage about the study and any policies developed in response to the results.

The study’s authors then review the annotations for accuracy, and Science in the Classroom staff review annotations to ensure the material is at the correct learning level – the papers are intended to be used in introductory college coursework.

Since 2013, the program has made available more than 100 annotated papers along with collections of topic-specific materials and guides for educators. In addition to their library of materials, the program has also expanded the reach of their workshops for educators, holding workshops in California, New Jersey and Tennessee this year in addition to Washington, D.C., Lake said.

The Aug. 15 interactive session began by working with one paper that is part of Science in the Classroom’s collection of annotated works: “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats,” published in Science in 2011. Participants examined the original paper and considered what resources their students might need as they paraphrased the abstract. The exercise showed just how challenging the language used in scientific papers can be. Participants also drew pictures of the experimental setup, demonstrating how different learning styles and skills can be used to engage with and better understand the material.

Educators also drafted their own lesson plans based on a paper of their choice, aligning with the educational standards that govern which scientific concepts students need to learn.

Workshop participants also learned about the CREATE method – consider, read, elucidate the hypotheses, analyze and interpret the data, and think of the next experiment – a method that helps students understand and engage both with scientific concepts and the science being practiced by scientists today. In classrooms using the method, students design their own follow-up experiments to a paper they just read and hold mock grant panels to select the best proposals for further study.

Participants also worked together to brainstorm additional ways that their students can better engage with the paper and its contents, such as encouraging students to reach out to paper authors by email. Teachers who already incorporate this into their teaching reported that students often get in-depth responses from scientists – a connection that helps humanize the people behind the discoveries.

It is rare that a single scientist is the sole author of a paper, so examining primary literature helps students see that contemporary science is a collaborative process, said Lydia Kaprelian, editorial manager of Science in the Classroom. When looking at authors of a scientific research paper, students often find a diversity of scientists, from a mix of disciplines and different parts of the country and the world.

“Looking at primary sources shows the diversity of scientists in every sense of the word,” said Kaprelian.


Andrea Korte

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