SciNews: Current Events in the 21st Century Classroom

Conveying relevance, especially in science where concepts can often be incorrectly perceived as irrelevant to everyday life, is of utmost importance to student learning and retention. Middle and high school students in Arizona are instructed with the aid of textbooks, lectures, and activities to teach state standards. However, because these materials are created to convey standardized science concepts, students are often left asking how the content relates to their everyday lives and why they should be learning it.

A PDF document is created for each issue of SciNews and it contains a description of the current event, location map, lesson instructions, and other information. Issue 8 showcased NASA's Kepler Mission results in identifying potential exoplanets in the habitable zone (February 2011). Students listen to a radio broadcast about the Kepler Mission (from NPR) and use an interactive module on the Kepler NASA website to learn about how scientists detect exoplanets.

One way to create a link between classroom content and everyday life is through the use of science current events. Student interest is naturally drawn to events and important scientific findings that receive wide media coverage. Students read, hear, and watch, but do not necessarily relate the scientific information from media sources to classroom studies. Dismissing these brief teachable moments, when student interest is high, wastes a valuable opportunity to make classroom-to-everyday life associations and to incorporate inquiry based learning.

To address this need, I am creating timely, pre-packaged current event materials aimed at middle and high school educators that align to state standards and are short, effective, and easy to implement. Each current event takes approximately 15-20 minutes (but can often be expanded upon), allowing teachers time to facilitate brief but meaningful discussions. Materials may include short slide shows, maps, videos, radio broadcasts, pictures, and real-time data that capture a regional or global science current event (such as an oil spill, earthquake, etc.). Showing students the process and progressive nature of scientific information using current events reinforces critical thinking rather than rote memorization.

SciNewsWebsite and Listserv

All materials are hosted on the Arizona State University Education Outreach website and are archived and free to download. Visit:

Each new lesson is broadcast via email to subscribers of SCINEWS. The email contains the current event topic, a brief description of the event, and a link to the SciNews website to download materials. New lessons are produced at the rate of one every two- to three-weeks. Over 235 educators representing 35 states and 19 countries subscribe to SCINEWS. Interested in joining the SciNews listserv? To subscribe send a message with your name, affiliation, and email address to:

How SciNews Works

  1. Lessons materials, as well as the overview PDF document (see examples in figures), are assembled soon after a regional or global science event.
  2. Materials are posted on the SciNews website and subscribers are immediately alerted to the new current event topic and relevant websites.
  3. I ask educators to review and report the usefulness, effectiveness, and quality of each lesson via a short 10 question online survey. This information is essential for improving the lessons and is required for reporting purposes that keep the project funded.

SciNews Impact

The SciNews project was presented and well received in the Education section of the 2010 American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco. It is featured in the news section of as new lessons are posted, and was selected for inclusion in the Digital Library for Earth System Education. As indicated by dozens of emails and survey responses, SciNews lessons have been received positively by participating teachers and have been used in middle school, high school, and college classrooms. I welcome feedback on SciNews lessons; please find lesson-specific survey links on the SciNews website.

SciNews Issues

  • Issue 10: Devastating 9.0 Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan - April 2011
  • Issue 9: Student Health Issue: Should we tax sugary drinks? - March 2011
  • Issue 8: Kepler Mission Identifies Potential Exoplanets in the Habitable Zone –February 2011
  • Issue 7: Severe Flooding in Queensland, Australia related to La Niña - January 2011
  • Issue 6: NASA's EPOXI mission makes a flyby of Comet Hartley 2 - November 2010
  • Issue 5: Health Effects of Volcanic Ash - an example from Indonesia - Sept. & Oct. 2010
  • Issue 4: Copiapó, Chile Mining Accident - August 2010
  • Issue 3: Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill - May and June 2010
  • Issue 2: Eruptions of the Icelandic Volcano Eyjafjallajökull - March and April 2010
  • Issue 1: Large Earthquakes in Chile and Haiti - January and February 2010

Lesson Example:

Issue 3: Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill (May/June 2010)

Above (left) Event description and lesson instructions PDF created for Issue 3: Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill. The materials for this event focus on understanding two aspects of the Oil Spill: 1) the amount of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico and how far it traveled, and 2) the effect of the oil spill on wildlife and ecosystems. I created two lessons for this topic and each lesson takes approximately 15 minutes. Above (right) is the worksheet created for lesson 1, which asks students to calculate the amount of oil that leaked into the Gulf (in terms of swimming pools full). As a class, students use an interactive on the New York Times Oil Spill website (link on SciNews webpage) to view how far the oil traveled & where it washed ashore.

I created a cartoon explaining the events that occurred during the oil spill for this Issue. It might be used as background information for an educator, or passed out to students to explain the series of events that occurred. Download this PDF and Issue 3 on the SciNews website.

About the author:

Erin DiMaggio is currently a Ph.D. student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University studying sedimentology and basin development in the Afar Depression, Ethiopia.

In addition to the development of SciNews (part of her ASU/NASA Space Grant Fellowship) Erin has been active in several other outreach programs for K-12 students and teachers throughout her education. These efforts include the National Science Foundation Graduate STEM Fellowship in K-12 Education (GK-12 Program) and the NASA Solar System Ambassador Program, which are both based on supporting the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. She spends most weekends outdoors enjoying the beautiful and diverse Arizona landscape.

Erin DiMaggio Graduate Student and ASU/NASA Space Grant Fellow Active tectonics, quantitative structural geology and geomorphology research group
Phoenix, AZ