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Why High School Teachers Must Make Science Relevant

Make science relevant. This is most likely something you have heard about your entire teaching career. So why do I think this is more important for high school teachers now than ever before?

This decade has only just begun but as I reflect on what has characterized it thus far, the only words that come to my mind to describe it are NOISY and CHAOTIC.

Now if this is how I, as an adult, feel after the events of this last year, I cannot even imagine what it feels like to be a high schooler living in this time, with a device constantly at my fingertips, practically screaming information, negativity, and distractions 24/7.

Because of this, I believe that now, more than ever, it is our duty as secondary educators to cut through the noise in our students’ lives by getting them to focus on what truly matters. I believe we can do that by prioritizing the relevancy of the content we teach in our classrooms.

But what does that mean?

Relevant = closely connected or appropriate, given the current time or circumstances.

I’m not just talking about assigning students to bring in a weekly “science in the news” article to share with the class. I’m not just talking about sharing fun science facts during your bell ringer (which you should do, by the way). These aren’t bad ideas, but I think there is more that we can do to engage our students and make science meaningful to them; to make it matter.

Why do this?

Information is in the palm of each and every one of our student’s hands. They can acquire facts in seconds. Because of this, teaching can no longer just be about distributing content but must become about why the content matters for them. This isn’t just a responsibility reserved for social science and ELA teachers. It’s our duty as science teachers, too.

Choosing to make science relevant for our high school students will have two key results:

  1. Students will see that we are making an effort to understand them, know what their lives are like, and engage with them on THEIR TURF, not just ours. This will help to build relationships with our students. When you build a relationship with a student, it shows that you care for them and that they can trust you. When they trust you and respect you, they will listen to you and work hard for you.
  2. Students will engage more in learning the content because they will care about it. No longer will they see our classes and our content as a list of organelle functions or rules for naming chemical compounds. They will see that our classes and the content we share with them matters and is applicable in their every day lives.

So, what does this look like practically?

ASK QUESTIONS! The most impactful professor from my undergraduate experience was an assistant prof. who asked us more questions than he answered. We have to be asking our students questions to know who they are, what they care about, and how the world we currently live in is impacting them. Engaging your students in discussions should be a daily objective.

Provide them opportunities to see the bigger picture in everything you cover. Every objective and standard should connect back to a phenomenon, real-world experience, or a discussion on the societal implications. It’s a majorly missed opportunity if you teach cells without ever teaching about cancer, or teach the nervous system without ever teaching the impact of drugs and addiction on the way it functions. Don’t miss another opportunity to make science relevant to your students!

Make cross-curricular connections. At the secondary level, especially, I don’t think any subject should be taught in isolation. For example, I love to bring in the AP Statistics teacher to show my students the importance of precision and accuracy in collecting data to support or refute scientific hypotheses. I love working alongside our government teacher to talk about the political issues that have accompanied any and every scientific advancement. One of my all-time favorite instructional resources is a bioethics research activity, where students are introduced to the bioethics through learning about Henrietta Lacks, which creates space to have discussions on cells as well as racism, socioeconomic discrimination, and the violation of human rights for the sake of medical research.

I really love to leave assignments like these somewhat open-ended. This makes it so students can customize to their interests, topics can easily be changed as what is relevant changes, and you aren’t having to reinvent the wheel and re-write the assignment year after year.

Lastly, we can make science relevant by using pop culture. As I write this at the beginning of 2021, that could look like using memes, gifs, and TikToks to engage students where they are. (If you had said those three words to any of us ten years ago, I wonder what we would have thought they meant – haha!) Why make students create a traditional 5 minute PowerPoint presentation when they could create a 60 second TikTok and demonstrate the same understanding in a way that is fun and relevant to them?

I hope reading this reignited a fire in you to prioritize making science relevant for your students. If you have done this successfully in your class, I’d love to hear how! You can share your thoughts and experiences here.

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