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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Tackling a Scientific Text

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Tracy Tran discusses the importance of encouraging students not to shy away from dense scientific text.

Teacher: Tracy Tran

School: The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, New York, NY

Grade: 12

Discipline: Science (Environmental Science)

Lesson Topic: What is an abstract?

Lesson Month: March

Number of Students: 28

Other: This is a college-preparatory high school with a focus on legal studies and debate. Ms. Tran co-taught this class with Gabriel Mahan.

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Learn what a scientific abstract is, why abstracts are used, and what the different parts of an abstract are
  • Literacy/language objectives – Talk and write about a scientific problem in a succinct way
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Work together as a class to identify the different parts of an abstract; share out different abstracts so that students are able to use peers’ work as a model/support

Standards Addressed:

Next Generation Science Standards

  • HS-ESS3-2
    Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost–benefit ratios.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Introduce a topic and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful in aiding comprehension.
    Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation provided (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).

Instruction Details:

The Unit
The focus of this six-week unit was hydraulic fracturing and how it affects the water system. The goal was for students to write a scientific report assessing hydraulic fracturing on New York City’s watershed. The unit was taught in the middle of the second semester and was the fifth of six total units for the entire year. The lesson on abstracts occurred at the end of the unit.

Before the Video
At the start of this unit, students knew the ultimate goal would be a research project, but they did not know the topic. (Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan wanted to encourage project-based learning.) Students first studied the current and past sources of water in New York City. Then, they learned about types of water pollution and associated health damages. Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan brought the focus back to New York City’s drinking water, focusing on the geology of how water gets captured and stored and how it can become polluted in the process.

Students then studied the geology of New York State (to understand that its underlying rock determines the process by which water is captured and stored). They learned about rock, shale, and sedimentary rock. (Because students had already learned about natural gas in a previous unit on energy, “shale” was not a new term. In that unit, they had discussed the benefits and drawbacks of hydraulic fracking, which allowed for a domestic energy source. Some students then deduced the topic of the research project: hydraulic fracturing.) In the two preceding lessons, students read about and analyzed the impact of hydraulic fracturing on aquatic ecosystems and engaged in a Socratic seminar to debate the question: Should Governor Cuomo lift the current moratorium on fracking?

During the Video
The lesson began with a “Do Now” warm-up activity in which students reflected on the discussions from the previous day’s Socratic seminar. They responded to the question: What was most/least challenging thing about the project? Ms. Tran reviewed the agenda for the day—which included writing an abstract about what their recommendations to Governor Cuomo would be in regard to lifting or keeping the current legislation on hydraulic fracking. She then taught a mini-lesson in which students learned the parts of an abstract (introduction, methodology, results, and conclusion). Students were given five minutes to read and annotate a sample abstract on their own, with instructions not to annotate for content but rather for the four explicit parts. They shared their ideas in small groups. Then, Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan reviewed the sample abstract with students together as a class. Students wrote their own abstract on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in New York State, which would set the stage for the beginning of the research project. They used resources such as notes, textbook, the Internet, and readings to help them. After 20 minutes of writing, students were instructed to swap abstracts with their neighbor and provide critiques.

After the Video
The abstracts were turned in to Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahon for review. If necessary, second drafts were submitted. Ultimately, students wrote a scientific report assessing hydraulic fracturing in the New York City watershed, which included a title page with a one-paragraph abstract, background, literature review (research), graphical analysis, recommendation, and works cited.

Prior Knowledge
To participate in this lesson, students needed to know how to annotate. They needed to have basic knowledge of hydraulic fracturing and the water system of New York City. The topic of hydraulic fracturing wasn’t entirely new to the students—they had already learned its benefits. Students also needed to know certain terminology like “aquifer,” “reservoir,” and “aqueduct.”

Differentiated Instruction
Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan provided a sample abstract to students as a model for structure and content and as a foundation on which students could base their writing. They modeled the annotation of the sample on a document camera and offered an optional graphic organizer when students began their writing. The graphic organizer broke the abstract down into different parts so that students could fill in each section (introduction, methodology, etc.). Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan did not pass it out to the entire class, but let students know it was available if they wanted it. Although they had stopped providing an annotation guide they had given students for the first half of the year, Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan did keep a poster with the information in the room should students have needed it. When presented with challenging vocabulary words in their reading, students could access resources such as books and the Internet. As students wrote their abstracts, Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan walked around the room to offer one-on-one support by asking questions and giving prompts.

Group Interaction
Students first read and annotated the sample abstract individually and then worked in small groups to discuss ideas. A student group facilitator called on peers to share their “clunks” (vocabulary words or phrases they did not understand), questions, and the different parts of the abstract. By working individually and then in a group, students could attempt to annotate the abstract on their own before receiving help from group. After writing their own abstracts, students exchanged them with their neighbor to review, critique, and offer feedback.

Resources and Tools


Formative Assessment
During the warm-up activity, Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan walked around the room to “take the temperature” of the class to figure out which students were confident with their report and which students weren’t and needed prompting to show they understood. While students wrote their abstracts, the teachers circulated through the room again. When students had difficulty, Ms. Tran asked questions to assess whether they really knew what hydraulic fracturing was and how it was relevant to the topic at hand. Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan also reviewed students’ abstracts and provided feedback and suggestions for improvement, which students then incorporated in a second draft.

Summative Assessment
Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan gave students an exit ticket that checked their understanding of what an abstract is and asked them what changes they would be making to the ones they had written. Students submitted their report in parts throughout the unit. They were encouraged to submit revisions after using the written and/or oral feedback they had received from the teachers or their peers.

Impact of Assessment
Ms. Tran and Mr. Mahan determined that students had trouble writing the introductions for their abstracts: although students knew they had to evaluate the pros and the cons of hydraulic fracking and the different issues related to it, they had forgotten about the bigger picture of the impact on New York State. Ms. Tran addressed this by asking a lot of questions like: Why would you care about fracking? Why are we doing this assignment?

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Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4