Laura Chase’s 11th-grade biology students investigated social inequities that impact their local communities. Collaborating with a humanities teacher, Laura asked her students to draw from the analytical skills they learned in science, the persuasive methods they learned in English, and the technical skills they learned in film in order to communicate their stories in a thoughtful way.
How did your National Geographic Educator Certification project, which focused on social inequity in Los Angeles, come about?
At the time, I worked at a project-based learning school where teachers collaborate to give students an interdisciplinary educational experience. For my capstone project, I collaborated with a humanities teacher who teaches English and film.
In Los Angeles, we know that our students are exposed to a lot of social inequities. As they develop their political awareness, we want to give them the tools to speak on some of the issues they see in their community. We landed on a “film festival” project: a fun way for students to apply their skills and publicly showcase their findings.
Students worked in small teams, pitched different storyboards and storytelling methodologies, conducted field research and interviews, and created documentaries showcasing their knowledge and opinions. We called them “Op-Docs.” We borrowed the idea from the New York Times’ online channel.
How did your students react to this project? How did you get them excited?
My students are most engaged when lessons connect to the real world. So, it was helpful to focus this project around visible, tangible problems they may regularly witness or experience. Students also had the freedom to choose which social inequity to document, which increased their investment. We saw projects about a wide array of topics, including homelessness, pharmaceutical prices, animal rights, and environmentalism.
We were also lucky enough to have a journalism student from the University of Southern California come in and give the class feedback on their Op-Docs. She looked at their rough drafts and gave advice on music choices, angles, and how to characterize subjects in different ways. Many students took the feedback to heart and made adjustments, which was great practice in handling constructive criticism. Our students were ultimately very proud of their final projects, and loudly cheered each other on during our public film festival.
What advice can you give other educators who want to help students consider real-world problems and become interdisciplinary thinkers?
In the beginning of every unit, I ask myself, “Why should students care about this content?” And the answer is not allowed to be that they need good test scores, or that this information will be helpful for a college science class. I think it is crucial to draw on current events and student experiences to build meaning and context around scientific data.
Sometimes, in the time crunch to cover content, I think that teachers include real-world applications by sprinkling them onto the end of a unit. Instead, I recommend that we start by saying, “this is a real problem in our community,” or “this is a real career you can pursue.” In my classroom, I’ve found that this shift has inspired genuine interest in the content. I also recommend reaching out to community members to request guest lectures and authentic feedback. Students love presenting to anyone who is not the teacher! It makes things more fun, and reinforces the connections between the classroom and the real world.
As a science teacher, what are your main strategies for connecting the content you teach with real-world applications?
I focus on lab skills and scientific literacy because those are applicable to any class project, and they’re transferable to any career path. While we work on scientific lab design, data analysis, and graph interpretation, we also emphasize ways to communicate findings—with either technical APA-style lab reports or informal oral presentations. No matter where students go after high school, they will need to interpret information, form arguments, and help others understand their perspectives.
I want my students to leave my class knowing they can be scientists if they want to be, but also equipped with the skills to think critically in any situation or field.
Interested in joining Laura as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.
This interview has been edited and condensed. This post was written by 2019 summer intern Meira Ruben.