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Bringing Real-World Science to the Classroom


by Katherine Ayers

 

 

 

 

For teachers like Jessica Minton, helping students understand how science is relevant to their lives is just as important as teaching the content. “I’ve got a lot of kids who don’t necessarily want to be scientists or go into some kind of medical field,” Minton reflects. “So, it’s always the why: ‘Why do I have to know it?’”

This year, Minton decided to team up with the St. Jude Cancer Education for Children Program to bring real-world science into her science classroom. The program provides cancer-related lessons that use case-based teaching methods and visible-thinking routines to generate deep, transformative learning that aligns to state and national standards.

 

Generating Deep Discussions

Case-based teaching uses narrative to engage students in a discussion of real-world scenarios to teach specific concepts. In the St. Jude cancer education case studies, students read patient stories and engage in problem solving from the perspective of a scientist to identify the signs and symptoms of cancer, analyze diagnostic data and assess effective treatment methods.

In the Cancer in the Family lesson, for example, students read through a fictional scenario in which a teenage girl, Stacey, is diagnosed with osteosarcoma and suspected of having inherited mutations in the TP53 gene. During the case study, students are asked to create and analyze a patient pedigree to determine whether or not the patient is a candidate for genetic testing.

After using this case study in her classroom, Minton reflects that her students “had better and stronger discussions when it came to making the pedigrees. They made those connections between mutations and cancer and tying it back into mitosis and meiosis and what would actually transfer between the spontaneous and the inherited cancers….Those moments are what made it memorable.”

 

Transforming Student Expectations

Traditional, lecture-based teaching methods and multiple-choice questioning focus on the dissemination of content knowledge. The students who can best regurgitate this content knowledge shine. Discovery research, however, requires the ability to think beyond what we already know and discover what is currently unknown.

Embedded within the St. Jude cancer education case studies are visible-thinking routines. Pioneered by Ron Ritchhart at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, visible-thinking routines are thought processes that encourage students to express, discuss and reflect upon their ideas through effective collaborations. Thinking routines demonstrate for students the thought processes inherent to discovery research.

When the classroom expectation shifts from memorization of facts to thinking, the students who can process information shine.

 “Some of my really strong test takers didn’t really have the thinking skills to process everything,” says Minton, “and some of my students who struggled on multiple-choice questions, all of a sudden they shined. I was like, ‘Yeah! I know you get it!’ That, to me as a teacher, was just fabulous.”

 

Reaching Beyond Standards

While ethics may not be included in current science standards, they play a pivotal role in determining how science is practiced and how science impacts society.

In the Cancer in the Family case study mentioned previously, Stacey is identified as a candidate for genetic screening to determine if she has Li-Fraumeni syndrome, an inherited cancer syndrome.

In the narrative, Stacey, her mom, and her sister all have conflicting viewpoints on whether or not Stacey should proceed with testing. Students are asked to consider the question of genetic testing from the various view points and then determine what they would do if they were Stacey.

“I want [students] to consider the ethical questions related to genomics in health care and why the consenting process is important,” says Minton. “In the case study, they were using the same arguments, but they were standing on both sides of the fence.”