This month’s book list offers fascinating stories about the lives and learning of scientists, famous and not-so-much, real and fictional.
That said, here and there, you may find content you want to be prepared to address, so be sure to read the books before you bring them into the classroom experience. That should prove no burden, as the books offer a lot of food for thought, richly textured profiles, and insights into STEM fields.
This month’s suggested activities fall into two categories: Getting to Know the Characters and Book-Specific Extensions.
Getting to Know the Characters
Chart Traits. Keep a running wall chart to track the characteristics and life experiences of the real scientists in these books—for example, Charles Darwin, Sylvia Acevedo, Irene Curie, and Lise Meitner—as well as Calpurnia in the novel. Different students can read different books. Complete the chart as students independently make their way through the reading. In the first column, list the scientists; dedicate each additional column to a trait or descriptor, each suggested by students based on “their” scientists. These traits might include: “intensely curious,” “passionate about science,” “imaginative,” “ambitious/has dreams or goals.” Students can place post-its with brief notes that illustrate when they see that a specific scientist demonstrates a given trait. Use these notes as a basis for exploring similarities and differences among scientists, and for reflection.
After students complete the books and the chart, consider setting up small group discussions of follow-up questions, such as:
- Which traits do you see as helpful and/or counterproductive to the scientists in their professional lives? … To their personal lives? Do you think there are examples of any one trait being be both helpful and counterproductive for any of the scientists?
- Complete these sentence : “I share [trait] with … [scientist(s]. For example, I…[story from life to illustrate similarity].” “Something I don’t quite connect to with …[scientist] is…”
- A life lesson I learned from each character is…
- Out of all of these scientists’ interests, the ones I strongly share are: ….
- How do the social norms and circumstances of each person’s time and place help or hinder their journey?
- What opportunities and obstacles helped and hindered the scientists in their personal and professional journeys? Have you experienced anything like this? How might your knowledge of one or more of these scientists help you in your own life, personally or as you aspire for academic and, later, career success?
Additional activity suggestions:
- Connect these scientists’ stories to the NGSS science and engineering practices. Have students create their own graphic organizers to reflect how they see these practices in action in these books.
- If possible, invite scientists into the classroom for students to interview. Students can enter each scientist and anecdotes into the chart.
- Each of the scientists in these books experienced both positive moments (successes, support from others) and set-backs (fears, life events, failures) in their professional and personal lives. Have students create a Chutes and Ladders style game representing these events, labeling each chute or ladder entrance’s game square with the episode from the corresponding scientist’s life. Each game piece can represent one of the scientists. Landing on a chute or ladder entrance that depicts an episode from the game piece-scientist, the player gets an additional turn. Later, keep the game available for informal time.
- Discuss how other people—friends, family, and colleagues—support the achievements of the individual scientists in the books.
- Take a cue from the Radioactive! teacher guide: Create a shared graphic of things that students are curious about. This will help connect students to the scientists and each other, and foster a culture of curiosity. Have students add the scientists’ likely responses to the graphic.
Both books may help students find their inner naturalists. Build on this opportunity with these ideas:
Collect Their Thoughts. Ask students to contribute inexpensive, readily available objects – seeds, leaves, pebbles, shells, marbles, and even paper clips of different configurations — to an “interesting stuff” classroom collection. Challenge students to sort, organize, compare and contrast objects in the collection. Conduct a collection circle discussion once a week:
- Which objects do you find most interesting, and why?
- What stirs your curiosity?
- Do you know anything about this object? What interesting connections can you find between it and something else in the collection?
Make Science Social. At the beginning of the Charles and Emma, readers learn that Charles values the stimulating intellectual conversations of the day. Calpurnia also deeply enjoys the social aspect of science. Help students experience this excitement with free-form, dorm-style, no-right-answer(-at-least-not-yet) science talks. Create a culture that encourages them to speculate, challenge each other, and use their imaginations to develop possible explanations for their questions.
Look Inside. Author Heather Montgomery (one of STEM Tuesday’s own!) may be the real-world’s answer to Calpurnia. Like Calpurnia and her brother Travis, Heather embodies both curiosity and a connection to the natural world. Help students follow in Calpurnia and Heather’s footsteps by offering dissection opportunities for your students; if not with animals, then with plants or gadgets.
Do Some Good! Look for a citizen science opportunity, such as this one (in Vermont), to share road kill sightings with scientists so they can study and help wildlife. Or think about organizing your own study of a small section of your community. Students might track road kill along their bus routes for a period of time. They might not be able to investigate the details from the bus window, but they could create maps of the routes and areas of relatively frequent road kill incidents.
Explore the Results of Rocket Science. On Page 289 of her autobiography, “rocket scientist” Sylvia Acevedo mentions two NASA projects she worked on. Visit NASA web pages to find out more about these missions. Solar Polar Solar Probe, now called the Parker Solar Probe, which launched this year, some 30 years after she worked on the project, and Voyager 2 Jupiter flyby. Check out the pictures of the results of these probes’ successful missions!
Know the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma of Radioactivity. These resources can help kids grasp some of the book’s science content:
- Show this 4-minute video to introduce some key basics of radiation and radioactivity.
- See and hear a Geiger counter at work:
- Help kids learn about the logic of the periodic table with this Paint Chip Periodic Table activity.
- Model half-life with simple objects and ice.
Bonus: Teacher Guides!
And, finally, for discussion ideas, as well as a few STEM-related activities, check out the teachers’ guides available for each book.
- Charles & Emma
- The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate
- Path To The Stars (requires membership to Teacher Vision)
Drop Us a Line. As always, we at STEM Tuesday are eager to hear what you think of these ideas, how you use and adapt them, and how else STEM books have brought excitement to your classroom. Please leave a comment.