Designing Science Curriculum for Adolescents

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

This lesson details key features of a high quality science curriculum, specifically geared towards adolescents. We'll cover alignment to national and state standards, factors for engagement, cultural relevance and developmentally appropriate topics.

Backwards Planning with Standards

Congratulations! You've been hired as a science teacher. They are excited to announce you'll be completely in charge of your curriculum. Although exciting, this might seem like a daunting process to design an entire year's worth of science from scratch. How do you even start?

The first step in designing any curriculum is backwards planning. In this strategy you start with your student learning goals for each topic and then plan lessons in order to accomplish them. But, how do you know what goals to choose? This is where state and national standards come in. The national standards for science in the United States are the next generation science standards (NGSS).

NGSS are available online

These outline general skills science students should learn during the year, such as writing in science, reading complex texts and designing experiments. State standards are specific to the state you teach in and outline the content that should be covered during the year.

Using your state's standards, you can decide what the important units should be for your course. You'll also want to consider which skills you want to incorporate throughout the year according to the NGSS. It's usually best to start simple and build the skills as students grow.

Relevant Topics for Age and Culture

Typically, the standards themselves aren't the most enticing to kids, such as identifying the relationship between structure and function in physiology. But, with a little creativity, you can create engaging lessons that touch on some of the most important issues for adolescents.

Sex, drugs, and medicine are all crucial topics for adolescents to be exposed to. Taking seemingly boring topics and showing them to students through a lens that is relevant to their life increases interest and understanding. When learning about neurobiology, it might be easy to rattle off the parts of a neuron, expecting students to naturally take to the new vocabulary. However, this is a great opportunity to incorporate a discussion on drugs and how they effect the brain.

Neurons become more interesting in the context of drug addiction

Anatomy can also focus on reproduction as students start to explore their sexuality. The ultimate goal of any science class is to get students to relate science to their everyday lives and wonder about the natural world. Including topics that bridge this gap is crucial to any science program.

You also have to know your audience. When studying ecology, teachers might tend to use examples from our local or regional environment. But, if many of your students are from the islands or Africa, they won't be familiar with such references. Try using animals and plants from their native countries, or letting students choose what types of wildlife they are familiar with.

Choose animals students are familiar with for your ecology unit

Similarly, White characters in reading won't resonate with a Black and Latino population. Use examples with their names, their culture, and their backgrounds to increase engagement and build connections with students.


So now we know what to include and how to make it interesting. How do we build those skills practically in lessons?

Inquiry Learning

Inquiry learning is a type of teaching that puts the ownership on students. Inquiry learning starts with students making observations about a scientific phenomenon. They then ask questions, and eventually come up with a testable question and design experiments to answer it, analyze their data and come to conclusions in conjunction with scientific research. Inquiry learning is at the heart of NGSS and is a great way to get students engaged in scientific investigations.

Science fair projects can be used to incorporate inquiry learning

Building Reasoning Skills

A huge part of science is being able to make a claim, use supporting evidence from data or research and make conclusions using reasoning. Students often struggle to connect their evidence to the claim, or to find relevant evidence. By explicitly teaching these skills and defining what each part should look like, students can understand claim, evidence, reasoning writing in a more concrete way.

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