The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Exemplary Science Teaching

Don’t you ever look back to your high school years and wish you were sitting at a lab desk listening to your teacher drone on about testcrosses, ecological zones, or transcription factors?

Yeah, me neither.

So you may ask, or at least think in the back of your head, why is this guy enrolled in a teacher education program studying to be a science teacher? Well, even though my science classes were filled with notes, worksheets, and exams, I also experienced the wonder that is biology through explorative labs, activities, and guest speakers. The love of science instilled in me by my science teachers has propelled my drive to become a teacher that prioritizes actually “doing” science, not simply reading a textbook that describes hundreds of older white men that have done science.

But how does one become a teacher like this in a world where standardization is becoming the norm and students and teachers alike face increasing pressure to perform?

After studying the practices of many exemplary science teachers ranging from kindergarten all the way to high school, I want to offer three simple tenets for exemplary science teaching.

  1. Be Inventive

    One theme that underscored each exemplary science teacher’s teaching philosophy was the ability to create lessons and activities that truly engaged the students, allowing the students to actively participate in their own learning. Yet one might be hard-pressed to do these things with some infamously rote science concepts.

    Even topics as “boring” as learning the Periodic Table can become engaging if a teacher is inventive enough, as the blog Science Lessons that Rock asserts:

This method brings fun into the chemistry classroom, yet it feels very disconnected from reality. Many students often leave the science classroom with nothing but isolated knowledge in their head, not realizing the impact this knowledge has on every part of their lives. What can teachers be in order to foster inquiring minds in their students?

2. Be relatable

Students want to learn things that actually matter to their lives. Luckily for us, science is very applicable to our lives, but students don’t often understand this. Cue inquiry-based learning. In this technique, used in virtually every exemplary science classroom that I studied, students become conductors of their own learning; they pose their own questions, gather their own data, and communicate their own results.

To demonstrate a real-life example of inquiry in action, let’s watch Casey Middle School in Boulder, CO where students decided they wanted to explore the river they walk by each and every day on their way to class:

With inquiry at the center of the classroom, students become invested in their learning, not in a cookbook lab or a fill in the blank worksheet. In this way, they receive priceless experience in asking strong questions, drawing conclusions from evidence, and communicating their ideas to others, skills that relate to their life outside the classroom.

3. Be curious

All these previous tips and methods are very helpful, but for certain teachers, these are bound to cause burnout. Generating lessons that are not only based in the science standards but also promote inquiry and wonder in students can be exhausting. That’s why it is so important for an exemplary teacher to be curious.

When a teacher’s passion and curiosity for exploration and discovery is switched on, then they become a lifelong learner along with the student. Work no longer feels like work (well except maybe the department meetings or school assemblies) but another chance to learn something new.

This has led teachers to invite industry experts from research or engineering firms to talk with students about how they incorporate the science they learned in high school into their life.

It also has pushed teachers to learn sophisticated technology and join forces with schools around the country and world to study water quality in a myriad of rivers and lakes, participating in citizen science along the way.

The teachers in these examples arrived at their school everyday, coffee in hand, and prepared to be amazed in a new way by science. That made them exemplary.

Yet before you all start to harp on me saying things like, “Mr. Larson, I can’t teach my kids the intricacies of cellular respiration through inquiry or wonder”, let me assure you that not every lesson is suited for the same level of inquiry. As this chart shows, different topics require different freedoms and approaches to teach. Students will need the backbone of material before they are ready to pursue their own research questions.

Exemplary teachers know how much guidance their students need in learning content, but they never fail to be engaging at any level of inquiry. Although cellular respiration or polygenic inheritance isn’t necessarily intuitive, it can still demonstrate how amazingly complex our world is, instilling students the wonder that is paramount to their engagement.

By being inventive, relatable, and curious, science teachers can begin the journey towards being exemplary. It will be a difficult and taxing process, but after seeing students grow into critical thinkers, great question askers, and science enthusiasts, all the work can be viewed as gain.

I’ll end with a quote that sums up perfectly how important wonder and exploration are to science education:

Science education should be about allowing students to wonder, to question, to explore and to do their own sense-making of natural and human-made phenomena. Instead it is often a place for teachers to tell students about science.

-Linda Tolladay


  1. Hey Michael,
    thanks for your kind words about my post! I also thought that the tiered inquiry graphic was so cool, and I think it answers the common misconception that inquiry must be completely student driven all the time. I think it will be a helpful tool in my future classroom. Also, thanks for the tip with the tweet! I will make sure to use it in my next post.

  2. Hey Nathan!
    I really like what you brought up about how teachers often reuse or borrow materials from previous years or teachers, and how this practice is not very inventive. I know that in my high school experience, there were some labs that were done over and over again and became almost infamous to future students. Although I think that sometimes teachers have no other options but to reuse something (if it’s a required lab for example), they could still definitely put a new spin on it to foster creativity and curiosity in their students.

  3. Hey Luke!
    Your post had a lot of good practical advice about being an exemplary teacher. I like how you said teachers should be inventive. This is especially important because many teachers borrow resources from other teachers or reuse the same lessons every year, neither of which are very inventive ways of teaching. I think that if teachers were more inventive, they would create better and more interesting lessons. This you explained would increase the curiosity of the students, which is a key ingredient of learning.

  4. Hey!
    Your conversational tone made this one of my favorite blog posts to read because it made it feel like you were talking right to me. Definitely make sure to carry this trend forward for both the blog posts and for some of your student handouts because I think it is extremely engaging — see “2. Be Relatable” above haha! My favorite point you put forward involved the “tiered inquiry” infographic you included. (Definitely saving that for later!) Great job!

    Quick side note: the gif in your tweet was great! if you embed it, however, it’ll be visible without needing to follow a link.

  5. Hi Grace 🙂
    Thanks for your comments! To respond to your question, I think that being curious might be the hardest for teachers to accomplish. This is because curiosity is not often a trait that increases with age, especially if someone is teaching similar curriculum each year. I think a way to foster curiosity is for teachers to seek out new science advancements that interest them and infuse them into their lessons because if it is interesting to the teacher, it is most likely going to be more interesting to the students.

  6. Hi!
    First, this post is so well written and the way you phrase things make this enjoyable to read. The graphic about the different types of inquiry was awesome and so informative. I think it’s easy for teachers to think all inquiry is free inquiry and because of that, they stray away from inquiry completely. That feels especially true for me- inquiry can seem really overwhelming at first. It was a good reminder that you can infuse inquiry in some fashion into most lessons. I also like how you mentioned teachers bringing professionals into their classroom to teach students about their jobs. This is something I really want to do in my future classroom and hope will benefit my students. Out of your three main points, which one do you think is the hardest for teachers do to? And why do you think that is?

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