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General Science and Teaching

How do you teach subjects you're unfamiliar with?

Author Post
Samantha Miranda Samantha Miranda 3940 Points

How much time do you need to prepare lessons on subjects you're unfamiliar with? How do you find resources to help you learn what you're going to teach? I'm thinking about taking an Earth science class next year, but that doesn't help me this semester.

Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5685 Points

Knowledge gaps for teachers is an ever-present issue. I have been working on integration of humanities and STEM disciplines into my science courses and it has pointed out a lot of knowledge gaps! First, where possible, I find a collaborator to work with me so that they can take lead in areas of the curriculum development where I am weaker. Next, I start reading through the materials the students will be working with to identify specific areas that I need to improve and do a self-study to bolster my understanding. Online textbooks and videos (e.g. Khan Academy) are wonderful for supplementing my understanding!  

Judith Boyle Judith Boyle 965 Points

Hello, Samantha,   I teach in a two-room schoolhouse where I am the only teacher for students in grades k-8. I can't teach the same science unit every year, so I must teach all of the sciences. Being an elementary teacher, I don't have the background knowledge to accomplish this. I fear teaching sciences I don't enjoy and know little about. One thing about science is there is a favorite for everyone, and I don't want to rob my students because of my dislike for a particular science. I have decided that when I attend a regional or national NSTA conference, I "step outside of my content comfort zone." My first endeavor was physics. As an elementary teacher, I also feared being in a room with middle school and high school teachers because they specialize in their science, and I didn't want to feel like a "dummy". So, I tell everyone around me that I am an elementary teacher who knows very little. Well, I have discovered that they welcome you with open arms and are so excited to help you. They want science taught in the elementary classroom! I brought physics back to my students, and we all love it! Next was chemistry, and that too was a success! I have also grown to love those sciences, and I plan to conquer more! So, I would highly recommend attending as many NSTA conferences as possible and stepping outside of your content comfort zone! One more suggestion... see your high school science teachers! They are a wealth of knowledge and are so willing to help! I have learned so much and I feel so much more confident opening the eyes of my students to more sciences!

Mary Bigelow Mary Bigelow 10265 Points

Judith -- You are so right about going to sessions at conferences that are on topics new to you! It's curious how some teachers won't go to a session or read an article on a topic because 'it's not in my curriculum.' Increasing our knowledge base helps us as teachers to make connections and see the crosscutting concepts! Another thought is to browse the NSTA journals, even those at different grade levels, to get ideas or expand our knowledge. Thanks for sharing! -- Mary B

Whitney Aragaki Whitney Aragaki 2490 Points

Hi Samantha, I am really in deep with your experience this year. I am teaching AP Environmental Science for the first time this year. It is the first time that our school is offering the course as well. Thus, we don't even have textbooks yet!!! Next year, I will be teaching AP Statistics too for the first time. However, we have offered the course before so there are some resources. To answer your question, I suggest that you network with your colleagues at your school and around your district/state. I have realized that it really is important to ask around and ask other experienced teachers. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but you can definitely put your own spin on the lessons when you get some help. I usually spend 3-4 hours per week after networking to create/tweak lessons per class week.

Samantha Miranda Samantha Miranda 3940 Points

Whitney, Thank you so much for your response. Networking is an excellent idea! Once I get more resources, 3-4 hours sounds much more reasonable than spending hours and hours on my own. Sincerely, Samantha

Christina Crawley Christina Crawley 1695 Points

Hi Samantha, In addition to taking full advantage of the various resources in the Learning Center and beyond, as well as networking, a good approach towards the class is also to be transparent about it - in an exciting way. Explain to your students that this is a brand-new course and that it's going to need their explorative research sets to give the course its corner stones. Depending on the age of your students, you can incorporate a peer-learning component as well so you learn together. Best of luck!

Sandy Gady Sandy Gady 43175 Points

Great question Samantha. I am in my 21st year of teaching and I still spend a lot of free time creating new units or tweaking and updating old ones. One of the best resources is your NSTA membership. Within the NSTA website and Learning Center, you will find a lot of really valuable resources. You have already found one of the best, and that is the forums. As you have noticed, the forums are broken down into specific areas of Science which will help you find what you need more quickly. The more time I spend in the Learning Center and the NSTA website, the more I find. An often overlooked resource are the web seminars, all of which are free. There are live ones that you can watch as they occur giving you the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter in a chat area. The presenters and others in the seminar are incredibly helpful. You can find the upcoming web seminars at http://learningcenter.nsta.org/products/webseminars.aspx Once you have registered, you will receive an email prior to the seminar that will give you the link to get you in. After you have finished the seminar, stick around for the survey. When you complete the survey, you are provided with a certificate that is automatically stored in “My PD Record and Certificates” tab at http://learningcenter.nsta.org/my_learning_center/my_transcript.aspx These certificates can easily be added to a free PD Plan & Portfolio which can be created using the PD Plan & Portfolio tool, http://learningcenter.nsta.org/PortfolioTool/PortfolioHome.aspx . This too is free and very, very impressive when completed. I printed mine off and handed it to my Vice Principal for my end of the year evaluation. Every PD that I completed, both with NSTA and others that I uploaded to the portfolio were neatly organized with all of the description that I added along the way. You can also access archived web seminars on more topics than you can imagine. These are found at http://learningcenter.nsta.org/products/web_seminar_archive_sponsor.aspx While you cannot get a certificate for attending the archived seminar, there is still a lot of wonderful information and resources that can be accessed. One of the best benefits of being an NSTA member is that you have access to all of the journals at all levels to help you out. This link, http://www.nsta.org/publications/journals.aspx will take you to the Member Journals page. From here you can select the journal you want to look at and search through. The journals are also available digitally, so you can read and share from them easily. If you know the topic you want to search for, you can do an advanced search from the Learning Center Advanced Search feature at http://learningcenter.nsta.org/search.aspx This has recently been updated to where you can search by keyword, author, conference presenter, type of resource, grade level and Science discipline. One of the updated features can be found in the drop down menu of the “Type of Learning Resource”. You will also notice in the “Type of Learning Resource” section, there are buttons that allow you to search through “NSTA Collections” as well as “User Created Collections”. This feature can be a lifesaver. Yet another resource is the ability to contact an Online Advisor, which is also located in the Learning Center . What you are looking for is the golden looking box with the picture of a lady and “Live Support” button. If you see the words, “Online”, that means there is a real live Science person on the other side that is trained to help you navigate through the Learning Center and find information and resources to help you out. Most are currently teaching Science at a variety of levels. The advisors are really, really good at pointing you to resources on every topic imaginable. You have discovered the forums, which also contain a wealth of information. The forums can be searched using the “Find Topics and Users” and “Search Community/People” tabs. When you enter a keyword(s), every post that has been made that contains the word(s) will be shown. You can then click on the post that meets your needs and you will immediately go to that forum. There are lots of really outstanding resources embedded in these forums. If you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, you can always start a new thread. I am an overachiever and my mind is always on “How can I use this in my classroom” mode. Everything is a lesson plan to me. I teach a STEM class where every day is a new day and Dollar Trees are my haven for lessons and materials. I find myself dreaming lessons at times. I get to pretty much set my own curriculum, so tend to create new units and lessons all the time. On the average I tend to spend 10-12 hours a week planning. I have to admit though, before I got good at using the resources I could find on the NSTA website and in the Learning Center specifically, I would spend twice that amount of time. Please post regularly to

Mitchell Miho Mitchell Miho 3090 Points

This is what I'm having to deal with this year as well. However, i have a great science department that has provided me with a lot of resources and teaching materials. I have also used a lot of the resources from this learning center. You should definitely check out the guides and even though the packs take a lot of time, they are very helpful. There are also countless amounts of PowerPoint's online as well, but you might have to look it over and modify them to be less wordy or more specific for your unit if need be. Good luck!

Matt Clark Matt Clark 765 Points

I think many people are scared to teach subject they are not familiar with. Just prepare and research as much as you can end everything will turn out fine.

Matt Clark Matt Clark 765 Points

I think many people are scared to teach subject they are not familiar with. Just prepare and research as much as you can end everything will turn out fine.

Jennifer Rahn Jennifer Rahn 67945 Points

Another suggestion for materials and labs you might use can be found at the Environmental Literacy Council http://www.enviroliteracy.org/subcategory.php/243.html. They also have quite a few materials covering economics, environmental health, population studies, transportation, and waste management related to environmental issues. There are some ads on the site, but it does a decent job of providing some background in environmental issues with enough detail to sound like you know what you are talking about. Also, consider picking up an AP Environmental study guide from the bookstore. They will go into some detail about legal issues and legislation, which are relatively important on the exam. I think they are decent starting points for organizing the course, and identifying the important topics. From there, you can fill in the knowledge gaps.

Even those of with backgrounds in environmental science spend a fair amount of time getting up to speed. It is not a stagnant content area! Good luck, and enjoy!

Ronnda Cargile Ronnda Cargile Hughes 3610 Points

I know this is an obvious answer but... Explore then dissect the NSTA Learning center.

D B Dionne Octavius 6395 Points

the best thing to do when teaching a subject you unfamiliar with is to use the internet BUT MAKE SURE the informations are correct because the internet can steer you wrong at time. educate your self by checking out different books at the library and getting to know the topic inside and out.

Shannon Hudson Shannon Hudson 2405 Points

I am in that position now- teaching physics. I begged for help from our high school physics teacher. He is a very patient, great guy and was a huge help. He also suggested going to NSTA or your local state science teachers convention and go to every single session about your new topic.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63815 Points

Hi Shannon,

Do you know about the eMentoring program through the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)? Several years ago I added the physics endorsement and I found eMentoring to be wonderfully helpful. You can find out more information at AAPT eMentoring.

I believe you cant teach students a topic you are unfamiliar with, i believe teachers are more effective on subjects they truly know about because the lecture will flow as it is,unlike when you teach something unfamiliar you are not going to teach everything because as the students you are still exploring and learning with them, i just would not like to teach something that i am not familiar with i would like to be able to help my student in everything if they dont get something or if they did not understand the topic.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63815 Points

You speak a great truth, Maria.  Some times a teacher is faced with a topic about which they know little.  Like you said, 'as the students you are still exploring and learning with them.'  When faced with that situation, learning can still occur for both teacher and student.  However, the teacher's role is switched to showing students how to learn something about which they know little to  nothing.  

This has happened to me a couple of times because students have asked some very good related questions to topics we are studying.  I didn't know how to answer those questions so I turned it into an opportunity to help students learn where to look for answers, how to evaluate sources, and ultimately determine what the answer to their question is.  It has been a very rewarding process and students have learned that you never stop learning.  In fact, because I was honest with them, it has made them more open and willing to ask the kinds of questions we are teachers what them to ask.  They do this because they know I am going to treat them like the adults they are becoming and I value their curiosity.

Skylyn Lozano Skylyn Lozano 195 Points

I think that not knowing about a topic is normal. You may have minor knowledge or just don't know how to teach it properly. There are plenty of resources. Talking to your other teachers, going to workshops or doing research on the internet. Even going to the library to check out teacher edition books. 

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