Asking Questions and Defining Problems by Making Cultural Connections

My goal for students in my eighth-grade middle school science class is to enter high school with the absolute certain knowledge that they can “do” science. They know that when presented with the inevitable problems and questions of everyday life, they have strategies to analyze, interpret, and sort evidence to make good decisions. My role is to provide a framework for students to develop those strategies. The NGSS practice of asking questions and defining problems is the first of the techniques I use in my classroom.

Middle school students question everything. What middle school teacher has not heard, “When am I ever going to use this?” For science teachers, the solution is culturally relevant pedagogy connecting science curriculum, the Disciplinary Core Idea, to students’ cultural experience: i.e., the NGSS practice of asking questions and defining problems. I offer some examples of cultural connections my students have made.

Eighth graders at my school participated in a unit on the carbon cycle and renewable energy that included discussions about corn as a biofuel. Students discovered that corn was highly subsidized by the federal government, which led to rich discussions about the ethics of using food for transportation or energy and how that might impact food prices. This was a particular concern for the 63% of my students whose families lived in poverty. Students conducted a thorough investigation of their home pantries to discover how many foods contained corn or included corn syrup among the ingredients.

Students of different ethnic backgrounds found different foods in their cupboards, containing varying amounts of corn and corn products. The parents of three students refused to buy high-fructose corn syrup, so these students found very few examples to share with the class. Most students, however, had a heavy corn-based diet, and they questioned the availability of corn for eating if it was being used as fuel.

The revelation that so many families in our school community depended on corn as a staple of their diet motivated the students to conduct further research on biofuel production. This research dovetailed nicely into our study of the carbon cycle. It offered a cultural connection to students’ lives and led to student engagement.

In one of the unit’s formative assessments, students were asked to create a presentation about what they found most engaging about the unit. Students responded by creating cheerleading chants complete with tumbling; panel discussions; rap songs; posters; PowerPoint/Google Doc presentations; and two research papers. The point of this assessment is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the science in a creative, engaging, and entertaining way that connects what they learned to their own cultural experience.

Making cultural connections is sometimes as easy as asking students to do it themselves, as I did for the final task in the carbon cycle unit. After sharing all of their research and information and discussing it as a class, students wrote deeply thoughtful statements showing their personal connection to the carbon cycle and its impact on their lives. Many students commented on how vital the new information was to their future. One young man said he wanted to learn all he could about the mistakes adults had made so he could correct things as an adult. Another understood he and his family depended on current technologies, and he worried about the damage these technologies were doing to the environment.

Students also wrote about the discussions they had with their families. My classroom has a range of abilities and multiple languages, so student responses were written in four different languages, and two students used pictures to convey their thoughts. All students demonstrated an understanding of how the unit connected to their lives.

Connecting the Disciplinary Core Idea to one’s own life leads naturally to making connections across disciplines, what NGSS calls Crosscutting Concepts. In the past, these connections were often made by more advanced students, but the NGSS makes the connections explicit for and accessible to all students. In the carbon cycle unit, students quickly saw not only the connections to biology (food pyramid) and Earth science (formation of sedimentary rock and fossil fuels), but also to food production and the industrial revolution lessons from their social studies class, and the graphs, patterns, and data analysis from their math class.

It became almost a game with students to see who could make the most connections of the carbon cycle to the world outside the science classroom. They joyfully connected the carbon cycle to television shows, news events, and even to a rap song. Once students understood the connections across disciplines, they were able to create a framework for a more coherent scientific view of their world.

The middle school classroom is where students develop the strategies needed to become critical thinkers. The NGSS practice of asking questions, defining problems, and connecting them to students’ cultures and everyday lives makes inquiry a compelling and engaging activity for students, and answers the age-old question, “When am I ever going to use this?”

Susan Cohen

Susan Cohen is a National Certified Master Teacher in the area of early adolescence science and was the teacher highlighted in the race and ethnicity case study in Appendix D of the NGSS. She has taught middle school science for 20 years in a highly diverse urban school.


This article was featured in the November issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the November issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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