August 25, 2020

Current event literacy with science news stories

Posted by Laura Guertin

I first heard the phrase “current event literacy” years ago from a history colleague on campus. We were at a campus-wide discussion on undergraduate research, sharing strategies of how we introduce some of the foundational skills to our freshmen and sophomores necessary for success in future discovery-based projects. My colleague was discussing how she wants students to have an awareness of what is happening locally-to-globally at the present time, and to make connections to past events. Despite our institution having a newspaper readership program that allows students to pick up free copies of daily newspapers like The New York Times and USA Today, so few students take advantage of this resource. She started sharing how she intentionally incorporates current event literacy into her courses – students are able to find a recently-published, relevant article on their own, understand the content, apply it to their current learning, and make connections to past events (again, this is a history course she teaches).

Now if you search, you won’t find “current event literacy” in Google. But this phrase accurately describes an important learning outcome we have for our students, whether they be in a history or science course – an awareness of what is going on in the discipline, in the world around them, at the present time.

Many of us are already engaged in sharing recent advances in our discipline with our students, whether it be bringing up a news headline in discussion or requiring students to share articles with us. We may ask a student to share the content of what they read, to apply it to specific course content they are learning, or reflect upon how the content is important to scientists and to society. I start each of my classes by showing students 3-5 current news headlines that are focused on local issues, course content, and/or something that is currently being reported on by mainstream media that has relevance and a connection to our course.


Why share current events?

But is it worth taking the time to engage students with current Earth science events? Does this belong in an introductory- or upper-level Earth science course?

Sharing current news stories is not new to the geoscience classroom. In 1991, Dr. Craig Hatfield published in the Journal of Geological Education on the “Use of Current News in Teaching Geology.” In his abstract, he states,

“Current controversial events, which have already attracted student attention via newspapers and television news, can be used to integrate petroleum geology, hydrogeology, economics, political science, geography, and other areas while emphasizing the disciplines of logic and critical reading.”

More recently, Dr. Cindy Ghent (Towson University) explored the reactions of introductory-level biology students on finding a science article on the internet, reading the content, then writing a one-page paper commenting on the article. Her paper, published in the Journal of College Science Teaching (Jan/Feb 2010) found that the reading/thinking/writing of this assignment resulted in student comments broadly classified in the categories of: emotion, opinion, knowledge, society, motivation, and technical. As she felt that the student papers showed that, “students realize that science does relate to them, sometimes on a very personal level,” she decided to “sacrifice soem time that would have been used for covering content, [to] gain time for increasing one of the critical goals of the course – scientific literacy.”

Dr. Kaatje Kraft (Whatcom Community College) wrote an essay titled Why do we teach geoscience to non-majors? that also connects to the goal of increasing the scientific literacy of our students. In her narrative, she writes,

“If we want our general education students to be “scientifically literate citizens,” we need to seriously examine what is important to address in an introductory class, how we approach the topics and what is emphasized.”

And our discipline has authored the Earth Science Literacy Principles (see blog post) that lays out what everyone should know about Earth science. Can we get to improving scientific literacy through the sharing of current event news stories? Do we encourage students to read open-sourced articles from places such as those on this list, and apply the content to the course, to their own lives, or society as a whole?

Is all news “good” news?

A quick reminder that we need to be aware of how we introduce these current news stories to students – do we let them seek out articles on their own, or do we bring the articles to them? The faculty librarian that works with my class asks my students every semester where they get their news from, and the top answer is always social media (not as much Facebook these days, but surprisingly, Snapchat is a popular news source). We also need to be mindful that students are quick to do a basic Google search and click on a link that appears on the first page of search results.

To ensure students can find current and relevant sources beyond the semester they enroll in our course, there should be some information literacy instruction to go along with the discussion of science news sources (see the Information Cycle (blog post)). Again, I’ve turned to my faculty colleague in the library that reviews with students how to evaluate sources with the CRAP test (see blog post), and how to set up Google Alerts (see blog post) when news stories are published on a specific topic. I make sure my introductory-level courses have this information literacy component, and I also utilize a Library Guide, or LibGuide (see blog post), to introduce students to sources I recommend they search.

If you are looking for an exercise on evaluating science news articles for high school and college students, see the HHMI BioInteractive classroom resource, Evaluating Science in the News. PBS NOW Classroom has an exercise not focused specifically on science but on Current Event Awareness/Media Literacy. Finally, there is an exercise in the SERC Teach the Earth collection on Finding connections between current events and earth sciences.


In summary, sharing current event news stories with students in class can take little time and help them connect to the discipline and the world around them. There is individual, personal learning that can happen with each student if there is an assignment with an article provided to them or found on their own. And in this present state where the news is focused on medical, social, and political stories, helping students find the Earth science stories could help guide students to improved scientific literacy.