Teachers learning new content

My background is in engineering and now I’m teaching middle school general science. I’m comfortable with the topics in physical and earth science, but I’m a little shaky on the life science topics, including cells, genetics, and evolution. Could you suggest some strategies or resources I could use to get up to speed quickly?  —T., Minnesota

Teachers often find themselves reassigned to different subjects, and even the subjects we prepared for have ongoing discoveries and developments. Many of us can identify with your situation of keeping a few steps ahead of the students for a while (I was a chemistry major whose first teaching assignment was middle school life science).

For the content areas you identified in your question, here are several websites with information in a visual, understandable format (there are many others, of course):

  • Learn Genetics has tutorials and readings on cell biology, genetics, neuroscience, human health, and ecology.
  • Bozeman Science has brief videos geared toward high school students with good explanations of key concepts.
  • Understanding Evolution has a collection of resources for students and teachers on the science and history of evolutionary biology.

Books geared for middle or high school students on the topics you’re discussing can provide a quick update at a level that your students will also understand. Check out the suggested reading lists in the NSTA journals or search the NSTA Recommends site.

Look for seminars or speakers at nearby colleges/universities. Professional societies., museums, zoos, nature centers, or botanical gardens often have lectures open to the public or special programs for teachers.

The resources at the NSTA Learning Center will help you, too. These resources include online web seminars and podcasts, as well as SciPacks. These collections of interactive, self-paced learning opportunities (called Science Objects) guide you through specific areas of science. In addition to the information you’ll learn, you also have access to an online mentor who can answer content questions for you. There are several related to life science, including Cell Structure and Function, Cell Division and Differentiation, Heredity and Variation, and Cells and Chemical Reactions.

Reading NSTA journals such as The Science Teacher, Science Scope, and Science & Children is an easy way to stay current, and your NSTA membership includes online access to all of them, including the archives. Even though you’re teaching middle school, the other two journals will have additional teaching ideas and content updates.

Participating a professional learning community through social media offers a just-in-time way to share ideas and information. NSTA has e-mail lists related to biology, middle school, and general science. NSTA also hosts discussion forums in life science and general science. Twitter has many hashtags for science teachers, including #nsta and #biologyteachers. In all of these resources, you’ll find colleagues are eager to offer just-in-time information, suggestions, and resources.

Check with your administrator to see if and how your independent studies could be considered part of your professional development plan.

With your expertise in engineering, you can be a resource for your colleagues as they learn more about the engineering practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics. You might be interested in the TeachEngineering site, in which topics and practices in life, earth and physical science are taught, connected, and reinforced through real-life problems or scenarios. There is an option to search the site by grade level, topic, and NGSS standards. The lessons have been designed by university engineering faculty and teachers. For example, Engineering and the Human Body illustrates the format and design of the units. 


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