Making Science Relevant for All Students

Working together to investigate phenomena establishes relevancy of the content.

I was the student who always asked, “Why?” I can vividly recall sitting in classes from elementary school through college memorizing facts so that I could get a good grade on my homework and do well on the test. The letter grade was my real motivation. And when the class was over for the year, I forgot mostly everything, except for the things I was interested in. 

It wasn’t a lack of educational opportunity that stunted my interest, it was the way the curriculum was presented. It didn’t hold my attention. It wasn’t engaging. It wasn’t relevant. I think this is part of the reason why I decided to go into teaching, and eventually into this position. During my senior year of college, I started interviewing at various school districts. A frequently asked question was, “Why do you want to be a teacher?” It’s a fair question. My response varied from interview to interview, but it always included that I wanted to make learning exciting, interesting, and engaging.

Why Is Relevant Curriculum Important?

There’s a quote from Maya Angelou that reads, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think her quote applies to our daily lives and also in the context of curriculum. Making curriculum that can connect to students’ emotions will help them remember. 

To understand what students remember, we need to understand how the brain stores information. Our brains store information by forming neural pathways that connect new content to information that is already stored in the brain. We learn new concepts rather easily and retain them if new information can be connected to an existing neural pathway. Our brains need that scaffolding to make connections between new knowledge and existing information. If new information is not related to anything already learned, it’s difficult to store it. Making personal connections to information either emotionally or from previously acquired knowledge will establish a connection to a neural pathway and allow the student to retain new data.

How NGSS Helps Make Science Relevant

Before the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), students were primarily learning theory without understanding the underlying principles that support the theory. Also, the curriculum did not offer opportunity for students to make emotional and personal connections with content. NGSS has shifted the approach to learning science by centering standards on phenomena and striving for a depth versus breadth approach. The movement away from rote memorization of facts and toward phenomena-based instruction has the ability to spark students’ natural curiosity. Centering standards on phenomena that are universal – like sound – or culturally relevant – like native species – makes science more relevant but also builds equity since students can begin with something they are familiar with.

How Teachers Can Help Make Science Relevant for their Students

Students want to see themselves in the content and also understand why the content is important to them. To do this, teachers need to relate how science can help their students, their families, and also their communities. Making authentic connections between content and students’ lives will engage students and make learning more relevant to their lives. In an article from EdWeek1, educator Nina Hike describes how she makes personal connections to students in her chemistry class. In Hike’s class, students examined environmental contaminants in the context of a real-life problem. A metal scrapyard in Chicago’s South Side was planned to relocate into a residential neighborhood where many of Hike’s students live. Students used the EPA website and found that lead was detected in the soil near their homes. In Hike’s class, students learned about the uses of lead and how to remove heavy metals from soil in an effort to help their community.

Hike’s class is a great example of how to make science relevant to our students. There are four key practices that teachers can use in science, or any discipline, to put personal relevance into practice. They are:

  • Make learning student-directed
  • Connect learning to their lives
  • Use scaffolding to associate new learning with what students already know
  • Keep learning fresh and exciting

When the content is relevant, students not only have a greater interest, but they also have greater expectations of themselves to succeed. When developing curriculum, we must keep relevancy in mind. Contact CSA Education to learn about our services and how we can make your curriculum exciting and relevant for your students.

Najarro, I. (2021, November 23). Here’s how to make science more relevant for students of color. Education Week.