Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading in Science - Beyond the Textbook

The number one skill necessary for success on standardized tests is the ability to read. Even success in the math section of standardized tests is dependent upon the ability to read. 

Students should be told from the first moment that they can read that this is the one skill they should hone above all others in order to do well on the tests that will determine much of their academic placement for the rest of their time in school.

However, if you ask most students, they will associate reading with English.  They very rarely associate reading with the other subjects and they do not consider reading the text as reading. 

That is why I make reading a part of my science curriculum whenever possible.  I have implemented reading outside of the text in my Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science classes for many years now.  I use these books to provide students with concepts that can supplement the text but also to encourage students to explore the subject from a variety of viewpoints.  But, most importantly this additional reading is to get students to understand that reading is not something that is isolated to the English classroom.

In Biology, my classes read The Hot Zone by Douglas Preston as a summer reading text prior to their freshman year of Biology.  There is no better way to get a group of 9th grade boys enthused about a subject then having a true story about death, blood gore and search into hidden caves in Africa to find the source of the disease. (see TED Talk Ali Carr-Chellman: Gaming to Re-engage Boys in Learning) There are many science topics that can be discussed from the study of the Ebola outbreak from Central Africa to Reston, Virginia including, the scientific method, epidemiology, immune system, vectors, hosts, disease, bacteria, virus, plague, AIDS, the CDC and WHO and cultural views of death.     
I have used Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton to introduce the concepts and ramifications of biotechnology. While I do not necessarily want my students to think they will be visiting genetically created dinosaurs in their future, I do want them to understand the possibilities of genetic research and the ramifications of the widespread use of biotechnology without the proper oversight or as Crichton points out a lack of a watchdog for this revolution. Jurassic Park is another book that provides a great story line to get students, especially teen age boys, engaged in the subject of Biology.

The third book I use in Biology is Jennie by Douglas Preston.  Jennie is the story of a chimpanzee brought from Africa and raised in a family as one of their own children. The story provides opportunity to discuss the biological, sociological and psychological differences between man and other primates.  Insights into the process of learning that takes place as Jennie assimilates into life as a chimpanzee in a human existence from language to imagination the observations are fascinating.  Do not replace this text with the Disney movie version as with most movies it does not live up to the story line or have nearly the same educational impact as the book.

I have already described the use of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn in my Environmental Science classes.  I have used A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr to discuss water and the legislative process of environmental issues. Students have read Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks in Chemistry to understand the development of the periodic table and the understanding of chemical study.  In Physics, I have used Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces to introduce the basics and complexity of Physics.

Reading novels, biographies, non-fiction are great means to get students to appreciate the subject of science without the formalness and dryness of most textbooks.  Let’s face it, most of us have experienced the flat forehead of a reading nap from an exploration of a biology or chemistry text book.

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