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Science at the White House

What You Need

 
Science at the White House

Purpose

To engage students in different areas of science through research and to help them integrate writing and scientific knowledge by creating a persuasive letter to President Obama highlighting the science they studied.


Context

When President Obama declared that he wanted to once again make the White House a host for public education on culture and pressing issues of the day, he opened the door to all Americans, students in particular, to get involved. Obama said that he would particularly like to bring science back to the White House, after a long absence, and elevate its stature through a White House lecture series. As a result, he opened the door to the education community and the general public to help him decide which types of science should be brought to the national stage.

Many of the nation's leading scientific organizations were engaged in making 2009 the Year of Science, in which the general public would have new and expanded access to learning about various sciences in informal venues. The Coalition on Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), of which AAAS is a part, is a grassroots effort of more than 500 organizations in 48 states that held science events for the general public throughout 2009. With this level of public engagement in science, the role of middle-school students in this effort should not be underestimated. It is important that they too can contribute to this effort to raise the visibility and importance of science on a national level.

It is always beneficial for students to learn about science through the understanding of current events and how science affects their world. Through the integration of writing and science in this lesson (in which students have to explain complex science in a concise and clear manner), students will further their understanding of different types of science, evaluate and engage in the vital role it plays in their world, and improve their persuasive writing skills by articulating the issues in an area of science where they have gathered evidence to prove its importance.

As the next generation of scientists and engineers, it is vital to engage them and let them know that they have influence over the types of science and technologies that will drive our nation in the future. Students can be excited and engaged by learning about recent discoveries in science, how they influence national policy, how much progress has been made in science, and where it is expected to take us in the future.

The types of science that will be explored in this lesson are the most relevant in today's world, and include such challenging issues as finding and developing alternative energy sources, nanotechnology, journey into deep space, and extreme weather's effect on climate change. In order to write a persuasive essay highlighting the area of science they researched, students must learn the issues around key scientific areas and how to articulate them. In our rapidly changing world, students need the tools to help them explain complex information in a short and concise format. By researching and writing a letter to President Obama, they will improve their ability to communicate and persuade others of science's importance and relevance to the world around us.

While students at the elementary school level are involved in scientific inquiry, and conducting experiments through which they form hypotheses and investigate outcomes, by middle school the curriculum is often much more focused on helping them learn large amounts of content. This process of integrating science and English through research and self expression should help them engage in scientific discovery and learn to express their opinions in a format that requires them to be concise, accurate, and persuasive.


Motivation

In order to get students excited about this lesson, students should use their Science at the White House student esheet to go to Science Class at the White House to view President Obama's interview on Meet the Press. Once they have viewed this clip, ask students questions like these:

  • Why do you think President Obama wants to bring science back into the White House?
  • Do you think science is important to our national policy today? Why?
  • Do you believe that students can influence President Obama about the type of science that is discussed in White House programs?
  • How would you go about influencing him as to which science to choose?

Development

After this discussion, explain to students that they will research one of the areas of science listed below and write persuasive letters to President Obama to convince him that the science assigned to them is a good choice for including in a White House level discussion of science.

  • Nanotechnology's Tiny Machines
  • Journey into Deep Space
  • Personalized Medicine
  • Extreme Weather Events
  • Alternative Energy
  • Discovering New Sea Life
  • Prehistoric America

Assign small groups of students a science topic to research. Before they begin their research, provide students with the Science at the White House student sheet, which has research questions that they can use to help them gather information for the assignment. Students can use the Science at the White House student esheet to view a list of websites for each area of science that they can investigate. Students will either conduct the research in the classroom if computers are available, or they can do the research at home as homework. If possible, the hand-outs also could be made available electronically so students can type their answers directly into a computer.

Here are the questions that should be answered on the student sheet:

  • Pretend you are explaining this science to your eight-year-old brother or sister. How would you describe this science?
  • Why is this science an important topic for our nation today?
  • What are two to three contributions that discoveries in this science have made to our world?
  • What is a counter argument that someone could make against this scientific topic being discussed at the White House?
  • What are two to three new research projects that scientists in this field are working on?
  • How can this science help our country/world in the future?

Before students start work on their letters, briefly explain what a persuasive letter is and how the information gathered should help them to make a convincing argument for why their assigned science is the right choice. Persuasive writing attempts to convince the reader that the point of view or course of action recommended by the writer is valid. It is important that the author understands other sides of the position so that the strongest information to counter the others can be presented. In the letter, only one side of the issue is presented. With this information in hand, students will hopefully be able to sort through the data they gather and determine its importance to persuading others about their science.

Now have students come together in small groups and discuss what they've learned, sharing information on the contributions this science has made, why someone might argue that this science is not that important, etc. They will come to consensus and create an outline for their letter. They will draft the letter in their small groups. You should supply a format to help them organize their thoughts.

Here is a suggested format for the persuasive letter:

  • The topic sentence should be a statement of position. That position must be clear and direct. The next sentence can explain what you have recently learned about President Obama's interest in science and discussing it at the White House. You may decide to use the Year of Science 2009 theme as rationale for conducting the science forums now. A third sentence can explain the science in plain language.
  • In the next paragraph, state the three best reasons that you have to support your position. Make sure that you have the evidence to support the three reasons you choose.
  • In the body of the essay, use specific evidence, examples, and statistics (not broad generalizations or personal opinions) to persuade the reader that the stated position is a valid one. A topic sentence for each support paragraph explains why this point is important and additional sentences help to support it. This way, the logic of the argument is easy to follow.
  • Be sure to use adequate transitions between paragraphs as they make it easier for the reader to follow the logic of the presentation.
  • To conclude your letter, explain why you are writing it (you think it's important that President Obama consider this topic for discussion at the White House) and restate your most compelling evidence cited in original form. Remember, this is the last chance to remind the reader and convince him/her to accept your position.

Students can then form groups based on those who researched the same topic. They should assign one person as the note taker for the first part of the exercise, a second one as the writer, and a third as the presenter. Each student should share the evidence that he or she has gathered and, as a group, students should decide which information is the most important to include in the letter. Then they should draft the letter together as the writer puts it down on paper or in the computer.

We estimate it will take 20-30 minutes to share evidence and draft the letter. Each group will present their letter to the class by reading it and taking questions. Since each group will be assigned a different science topic, there should not be any overlap in the information contained in the letter. After the letters are presented, you should collect them.


Assessment

Once you have the students' letters, you can grade them based on this rubric:

  • Does the letter clearly explain the type of science suggested and the purpose for the letter?
  • Does the letter make a compelling case for why this type of science would be a good choice for a White House discussion?
  • Does the letter use well-constructed transitions to bridge from one point to the next?
  • Does the letter summarize its main points in a strong conclusion?

 


Extensions

You may want to put the students back into their small groups for a follow-up activity. We suggest that the students make an advertisement that the White House could use to increase attendance for a lecture on their type of science. Scientists in this field also could use this ad to explain the importance of this science to the American public. Students can use the information gathered on scientific discovery and the future of their science to "sell" the importance and relevance of it. The ad headline is one of the most important aspects of this and should summarize why the general public should come to a lecture "on this science now".


Writing Persuasive Letters is a resource from ReadWriteThink (RWT) that contains links to RWT material on letter writing.


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Lesson Details

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