Bringing Scientific and Social Issues Alive with Authentic Voices


Teacher: Meghan Nolan, Grade 6 Math & Science Teacher

Students: Grade 6, ages 11 – 12

Audio Content: Talk of the Nation Science Friday, September 12, 2000

Location: Ethical Cultural Fieldston School, Bronx, NY



As part of a unit on hydrology, Meghan Nolan’s science students ran experiments on model rivers in the science lab, investigating the impact of human manipulation of natural streams. Ms. Nolan wanted students to connect the lab experience with real, current issues in order to strengthen their understanding and sense of purpose. She also wanted to broaden their sense of environmental issues while fostering their developing sense of ethics.

Ms. Nolan has found that, often, written material on science created for this age is too simple to spark real engagement and learning, while the vocabulary of news reports and scientific analysis of natural phenomena is often too sophisticated. Therefore, to achieve her goal of engaging students in a meaningful way, Ms. Nolan chose to use an NPR Talk of the Nation/Science Friday radio debate about the proposed intentional flooding of the Missouri River. Ms. Nolan structured a series of lessons in which students listened, took notes, discussed and debated among themselves. At the end, students produced short public service announcements to state their opinions while referencing their experimental results and notes from the audio program.


Use of Technology

Ms. Nolan downloaded six copies of the Science Friday piece, one to her desktop and five to school laptops. She also downloaded copies to six school-owned mp3 players as well as some of her students’ personal mp3 players. Using computers and mp3 players along with a set of computer speakers, headphones and headphone splitters, she was able to deliver all of her lessons efficiently. Most students were familiar with iTunes and the devices; what would have made the experience even simpler would have been if the program could have been “bookmarked” by the teacher so students could go directly to a particular part.

Classroom Observation

Ms. Nolan split up the Audible content into five separate lessons, each focusing on a segment ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. For the first three lessons, students listened in a group setting as Ms. Nolan played the content through speakers attached to her laptop. This allowed Ms. Nolan to stop, clarify and discuss the program as needed for each group. Ms. Nolan gave students a term bank, a list of speakers in the order in which they appear, and a chart to help students record key points in the debate. During these sessions, it was clear that students were engaged and working to listen to each point. At some points, students needed to stop roughly every couple of minutes to sort out and debate the points being made. Although students needed some clarification on the language of the debate, they were willing to voice their questions, especially those who are often passive during discussion. Listening also leant itself well to discussion after the listening exercises; and students felt comfortable paraphrasing, which showed that they understood these sophisticated arguments. At the end of each of these sessions, students worked in groups to chart the key points. For homework, they were asked to write questions they would have asked the debaters had they been in the room.

For the final two lessons, students listened on their own or with a partner (using a headphone splitter) and were able to stop, start and relisten as they needed. Some students chose to work alone while others preferred to collaborate and make decisions with a partner. Ms. Nolan was unsure about students’ ability to listen on their own to such challenging content, but she was pleasantly surprised overall. Students who were comfortable with the issues and format were able to listen on their own, take meaningful notes and present key points in discussion afterwards. Other students either worked with a partner or checked in with Ms. Nolan to process and clarify. Ms. Nolan checked in on every student and found that she was able to support the students who needed help as others worked independently. A few students had taken such an interest in the issues at hand that several worked outside of class to research how the issues had evolved in the past six years and presented their findings to the class.



Ms. Nolan felt that her 6th graders were deeply engaged in this exercise. She found that, compared to students’ typical level of engagement with classroom activities, students more actively developed an understanding of the scientific principles through their comments and questions about the audio program. The social nature of the subject – the flooding of the Missouri River – allowed students the opportunity to hear real voices and language in context. This mix seemed to lower the barrier to discussion for many kids who often remain quiet. The students took more risks than usual with respect to the vocabulary they chose and concepts they described. Ms. Nolan observed that students showed a deeper concern for the people introduced and issues described in the program compared to when they have been tasked with reading textual material supporting their lab experiments. The combination of the audio program, support material and starting with a group listening exercise created an effective scaffold to allow students to effectively listen to the final two lessons independently.

Teacher Quote:

“In our fall unit we study hurricanes, and students struggle with the language in daily storm updates. This debate also contained challenging language and concepts, but students were willing to discuss it, take risks on repeating words and seek clarification in a way that they weren’t with written text.”

“I am most surprised by how genuinely concerned students are with the issues. My students are from the New York area, have no experience with agricultural life and little awareness of how they rely on rivers, even though they are surrounded by them. Hearing the voices of farmers explain how a simple change to the river could affect their lives so dramatically had a powerful impact and made the issue real to my students.”

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