To use the book Lab Girl as a starting point for a close look at the life of a scientist and the impact her professional and personal experiences had on her career.
This lesson uses the book Lab Girl, written by Hope Jahren. This book is one of the winners of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
This book illustrates the development of a female scientist and the links between her development as a person and her growth as a scientist. This book is as much a personal memoir as it is an exploration of Jahren’s passion about science, weaving together stories of her childhood and life as a young scientist with descriptive details about the study of plant life. Jahren is now a renowned geobiologist, but she chose to begin her story with vivid recollections of the many nights and weekends spent in her father’s lab, and how these early experiences inspired an interest in plants and scientific inquiry.
The book is separated into three sections, and each one uses plants, trees, and flowers as metaphors for Jahren’s personal story. Through this unique style of storytelling, Jahren discusses her interests, her studies as an undergraduate and graduate student in science, the growth of a friendship, a romantic relationship, her marriage and family life, her emotional struggles, and the nature of her field of scientific study.
Themes that resonate throughout the book revolve largely around being a woman in a male-dominated field, and the emotions and passions surrounding her love of plants and its role in her life. Jahren used science and plants as a refuge and safe space to explore, and her work became a reliable constant in her life. The richness of the book lends itself to classroom discussions on a range of topics, from the science discussed in the book, to the complex issues of women in science, to mental health and emotional development.
In this lesson, students will focus on how Jahren used plants to tell her story. To encourage students to become engaged, they will complete a reading log, taking note of various themes throughout the book. Then they will complete a project, focusing on either the author’s writing style or the science discussed in the book. As an extension, they can research historical female figures in science, comparing their experiences to those of the author and protagonist of Lab Girl, Hope Jahren.
Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.6 Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.9 Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
Read Lab Girl and the Lab Girl Reading Log before moving forward with this lesson. As you read, note passages throughout the book that students might reference in their logs. Review the discussion questions and project options. Additional information is provided on the Lab Girl teacher sheet.
One of the videos the students will be asked to watch during the motivation will require Flash to be enabled in the browser they use.
Since this lesson uses the Lab Girl book, you should try to have classroom copies of the book on hand.
To begin this lesson, students should use their Lab Girl student esheet to view some videos about plants and the author of Lab Girl, Hope Jahren. [The first video requires using a browser with Flash enabled.] They will be guided through a series of videos and asked to consider questions with a partner. As you listen to the different conversations students are having, encourage students to explain their answers. After students discuss the videos in pairs, you may have a class discussion regarding these summary questions:
- Why is the study of plants important?
- How do our personal histories influence our careers?
- What questions do you have prior to reading Lab Girl?
Ask students to use this last question to write a short paragraph expressing what they expect to learn through their reading of Lab Girl.
Students should read Lab Girl and complete a project to help them further engage with the topics of the book. As they read the book, students should complete the Lab Girl Reading Log, which should be collected by you and graded.
The reading log for this lesson is a variation of a double-entry note log. Using the log, students should select passages to highlight that strike them as significant. The reading log provided contains guiding statements called Idea Strands, but you can choose to focus student reading on topics that relate to science learning goals that are being explored in the classroom.
Some additional questions students may want to explore as they read the book include:
- What are some of the many challenges scientists face? Students can consider botched experiments, the lack of meaningful results, and funding issues.
- What kinds of contributions do Jahren's findings make to science and society as a whole?
- How do you think Jahren's father's job as a scientist and her mother's background in literature contribute to her unique perspective?
After students have finished reading the book and filled out the reading log, provide them with the Lab Girl Project Instructions student sheet, which provides direction for completing one of these activities:
- Narrate the Life of a Plant
- Interview a Female Scientist
- Analyze a Plant Allegory
- Research a Scientific Method
To assess student understanding, you should collect and grade the reading logs and the projects students have completed.
For the reading logs, make sure that students have identified an idea strand and have related it to information found in the chapter. Satisfactory student work will have succinct notes on chapters within the sections and show how each chapter is related to at least one idea strand. Exemplary student work will relate multiple idea strands to each section and make connections from one section to the next.
For the projects, you can make use of the rubrics you created for them and use those to assess students' work.
Historically, many women in science were not given the credit they deserved. As an extension for this lesson, students can choose a female scientist in history and create a PowerPoint presentation describing that scientist’s life, career, and contribution to science. They can watch this short clip on women in science to get some ideas about female scientists to investigate. They may also choose a more modern female scientist. To add to this extension, you may want to have students compare the career trajectory of a female scientist from the early or mid-1900s to a more modern scientist and to describe how it has gotten easier for female scientists and how their path has not changed that much. Students may want to consider how intersectionality plays into this discussion and whether all female scientists' lives have improved in the same ways.
You can use these Science NetLInks lessons to help extend the ideas in this lesson:
- The Wild Trees lesson uses a book to explore the giant redwood trees of the redwood forests.
- Grassland Plants: Plant Identification offers a guide on how to use plant structures to identify plants.