February 20, 2017

Cheryl Wendling

Making Science Relevant

Topics: STEM Education / Play, Girls & STEM, STEM, STEAM

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Now retired, Cheryl Wendling was an award-winning high school science teacher, with a career spanning more than a quarter of a century. Her students ranged from those with Special Needs, to Advanced Placement students, and everything in between. During that time, she also wrote curricular materials for NASA and presented science workshops at local, state, national, and international levels. Upon leaving public education, she was a high school science editor for a major textbook publisher and currently works as a freelance science illustrator

At the beginning of every year that I taught, I was asked the same question: “Why do I need to take biology/ chemistry/ ecology/ etc.? I’m not going to be a scientist.” I’m certain that teachers in other subject areas heard the same sort of question. I never minded taking the time to try and help my students see for themselves how science was an integral part of their lives every day and of their futures. I realized early on, you see, that in order for students to see the value of learning, they needed to understand the relevance of what they are expected to learn and what impact it has on their lives.



When he was little, my oldest son came home from kindergarten complaining about how stupid he thought it was to thread macaroni onto a string. While a lot of kids might have thought it was a fun activity, my son thought it was a royal waste of time. So, I explained that in order to be good at things like throwing a ball to another person, drawing or writing, climbing, inserting a fork full of food into his mouth and not into his eye [I got laughs when I demonstrated this.], it was important for his eyes to be able to focus on what his hands were doing. I told him that his teachers knew this and so they came up with things for students to do that helped his eyes and hands to work together. In other words, I made it relevant to the things he did and what he wanted to do.

When writing this, just out of curiosity, I Googled, “Why is studying biology important?” Many of the sources had such simplistic and unsatisfying answers as, “Because it’s required,” or a listing of careers available to people who knew something about biology. There were some sources that attempted to explain how biology connected people with plants, animals, and other life forms. While that is certainly true, it still didn’t really give a good answer for why someone should study biology if they weren’t going to pursue a career in science.

Whenever the question inevitably came up in my classes, I tried my best to give everyday, easily relatable responses that involved not just biology, but other subject areas as well.  I would start by turning the questioning back onto the students, hopefully leading them all down a path to understanding. Just telling someone the answers doesn’t get them to think for themselves. An administrator once called me on the carpet because I wasn’t teaching “the right way”. Instead of spouting out a list of facts for students to memorize and regurgitate on a test, I was assigning them a topic and asking them to study about it and then tell me what they had learned from it. They didn’t know how. No one had ever expected them to find out things for themselves before, to ask questions themselves and look for the answers.  If it wasn’t in bold-faced print in a textbook, they didn’t know where to look. Questioning requires people to have to think and starting things off with the right questions can stimulate students to start asking their own questions.

“Why is it important for you to take biology? Do you brush your teeth? [Generally, I’d get a “Yes” here.] Why do you brush your teeth? [“So my breath smells better and/ or so I don’t get cavities.”] What causes cavities? [“Ummm, food sticking between my teeth?”]” Questions would continue until the subject of infections finally came up, along with the causes of infections (bacteria in this case), and did they know that the oral bacteria that causes dental disease have been linked to heart disease as well? Someone would ask, “How?” and I would set them to finding out the link between the two.



I would give various scenarios and explain at least one reason why knowledge of science was relevant in their every day life, regardless of whether they intended to pursue it as a career. “Do any of you have to help clean your home? [A number of hands are raised.] Have you ever used more than one household cleaner at a time? What might have happened if you mixed the wrong things together? How else could knowing this help you take better care of yourself and others?”

“If you own a car, or work as a mechanic, do you know why different grades of oil are put into an engine at different times of the year and in different climates? Why do car tires need to be filled with air at a certain pressure?"

Having given some examples of how science is imbedded into their lives, it’s crucial for students to be involved in a less passive way. They need to be thinking for themselves, not just answering. Grab a piece of chalk or a white board marker and get them brainstorming. Have them start looking at what they do every day and what they want to do with their lives and begin to search for answers of how science is part of those.


Robot Turles