By Vani Kilakkathi

For several years, international science test results have revealed a performance gap between U.S. students and their peers in other developed countries. According to the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released in December 2012, this lag in science still persists today. The study found that students in South Korea and Singapore achieved the highest scores on the fourth grade science test,[1] while students in Singapore and Taiwan led the rankings on the eighth grade science assessment.[2] In comparison, U.S. students ranked 7th on the fourth grade science assessment and 10th on the eighth grade science assessment. Within the U.S., TIMMS also found disparities in the performance of different student groups. For example, "black and Hispanic students scored lower than the U.S. average... [and] students from schools with low poverty rates posted better average scores than students from high-poverty schools."[3] Sadly, these results mirror broader educational achievement trends in the U.S.[4]

Having spent two years as an eighth grade science teacher in the Newark Public Schools,[5] these results were not at all surprising to me. Many students came into my classroom not knowing what a cell was, but at the end of the school year, they were all expected to describe the structure and purpose of the DNA within a cell on the state-administered science assessment. The results of these tests would influence my students' placement in high school honors classes, which could, in turn, affect their college admissions and eventual career outcomes. But as much as I wanted my students to do well on these exams so that they could increase their academic and professional opportunities, I also knew that understanding genetics had more serious consequences. For example, research has suggested that science education, particularly in the area of genetics, can affect eventual health outcomes in those patients suffering from diseases with a genetic component.[6] This makes intuitive sense: if someone misunderstands the basic mechanics of gene expression, she will not make informed treatment decisions that are in her best interest, with possibly fatal consequences. Clearly, the educational stakes are much higher than they may initially seem.

As teachers, we're told to avoid reinventing the wheel and to instead replicate the best practices of other successful teachers. In this spirit, I've summarized a list of strategies that helped my students master the basics of genetics and allowed them to break the school's previous records for achievement on the eighth grade science exam. These are listed below:

  • As much as possible, use visual or hands-on learning aids. Unlike topics such as earth science or astronomy, genetics can initially be difficult for students because they have a hard time visualizing the concepts they're discussing in class. For example, before beginning my genetics unit, I anticipated that my students would have a difficult time conceptualizing nucleotide base pairing. I began the DNA structure lesson with a hands-on activity in which I gave each group a bag with four differently-colored and differently-shaped puzzle pieces. The red A's would only fit together with the blue T's, and similarly, the green C's would only fit together with the yellow G's. After passing out the puzzle pieces, I asked my students whether they noticed any patterns. They could all readily identify the A-T, C-G base pairing rules and were able to articulate the basic reasoning underlying these rules, namely that the structure of the individual pieces determined the complimentary base pair. This hands-on activity was a more effective and engaging means of presenting the information than a standard lecture. The base pairing activity also primed my students for later lessons about sequencing. For example, in a subsequent lesson, I had my students build DNA models using gummy candy, marshmallows, and toothpicks, which could be twisted to mimic the double-helix structure of the molecule. The students had to use the concept of base pairing to determine the sequence of a complimentary strand of DNA, and I used the same nucleotide color scheme from the previous base pairing lesson. This familiar color coding reminded the students of the concepts from the lesson about DNA structure and allowed them to consciously (and literally) build on this prior knowledge.
  • Teaching genetics as a language. During my first year of teaching, one of my mentors told me that all teachers - even those that taught math and science - were teachers of literacy. Her advice made sense; decoding a piece of scientific text is largely a task of understanding what the words mean. As a result, I began taking a literacy-based approach to lesson planning, and I focused my instruction on helping my students build their science vocabularies. I did this in several different ways to make sure I was reaching auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners:

    • Auditory learners. At the beginning of each class, I presented my students with a list of "Words to Know" for that day. We would practice saying these words together as a class - first while going over the "Words to Know" at the beginning of each lecture, and again when we encountered that word in the presentation slides for that lesson. This repetition helped my auditory learners process and retain these vocabulary words.
    • Visual learners. For those students who learned best through visuals, I maintained a "Word Wall" in the back of my classroom. After presenting a particular vocabulary word, I would have students turn that word into a graphic by writing it on a large piece of paper and pairing it with a picture to quickly remind the reader of the word's definition. For example, in the genetics unit, one student represented the word "dominant" with a heavyweight boxer knocking out an opponent with one punch; in contrast, "recessive" was a much smaller and weaker boxer who needed two punches to knock out his opponent. Over the course of a unit, as more and more vocabulary was covered, the Word Wall would increase in size; when we finished a unit, a new Word Wall would go up. The Word Wall was also an opportunity for students to teach each other and take pride in doing so.
    • Kinesthetic learners. Finally, I reinforced vocabulary through dance by coming up with a unique move for each word that we covered in class (often with the students' help and input). For example, the dance move for "double helix" was the intertwining of the left and right arms. For the kinesthetic learners, at least once each unit, I would put on music and have what I called "Science Dance Parties." Students could dance to their hearts' content - provided that they did only science dance moves and only while saying the name of the vocabulary word associated with each movement. Some particularly committed students would even choreograph whole dances for specific songs.
  • Take advantage of interdisciplinary teaching opportunities by highlighting the intersection of social forces, ethics, and genetics. Genetics presents a unique opportunity to tie together a number of different disciplines and have deeper conversations with students about social justice and equality. Each year, I had my students research a number of bioethical issues and debate them in front of the class. Topics included cloning, genetically modified food, and genetic discrimination. Many students were disturbed by these bioethical issues, and particularly the lack of attention given to them. I also included lessons about scientists in the field of genetics who came from underrepresented backgrounds, like Rosalind Franklin and George Washington Carver. Students were moved by the stories of these scientists, who often did not achieve recognition for their contributions to the field. In my classroom, we had frank conversations about why, even today, minorities and women are underrepresented in these areas of research. After these discussions about the merits of having a range of perspectives represented in the sciences, several students expressed an interest in pursuing scientific careers.

I consistently applied these strategies during my two years in Newark, and the hard work paid off. Instead of providing statistics about my students' achievement, I will end with a story (changing the name and some minor details to protect the privacy of the student). During my first year, I worked closely with Kenny, who had one of the biggest, brightest smiles I've ever seen. Kenny struggled with reading and writing, but he loved the daily hands-on activities and the science dance parties, even coming up with several of the more popular dance moves. Kenny was one of my hardest-working students, staying after school several times a week for extra science tutoring. But after taking the state science test in April, he came to me dejected, shaking his head and saying "I can't believe I worked so hard for nothing." When the scores were released several months later, I flipped through them and held my breath when I got to Kenny's results. After taking a deep breath, I called him (he'd started high school by then) and told him to stop by on his way home. We went up to my classroom and I handed him his scores. His smile was the biggest and brightest I've ever seen it when he read the word at the top: "Proficient." After a few rounds of high fives (and a few celebratory science dance moves), Kenny decided to make his way home. On the way out, he bumped into an old teacher of his and showed her the score. "Kenny, I'm so proud of you!" she said, hugging him, to which he replied, "I'm sorry Miss G, but I'm not Kenny anymore - I'm Mr. Proficient." Kenny's story serves as an example of how adopting a strategic approach to science instruction can help any child, like Kenny, become a Mr. or Ms. Proficient.


Vani Kilakkathi is a Fellow of the Council for Responsible Genetics and a second year student at Harvard Law School.


1. Table 4. Average science scores of 4th-grade students, by education system: 2011, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (last visited May 19, 2013),

2. Table 5. Average science scores of 8th-grade students, by education system: 2011, International Mathematics and Science Study (last visited May 19, 2013),

3. Lyndsey Layton & Emma Brown, U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, reading, and science. The Washington Post (Dec. 11, 2012),

4. E.g., 2011 NAEP Science Scores, Achievement Levels, and Achievement Gaps, Education Week (last visited May 19, 2013), naepscience_charts.html.

5. I was member of Teach For America's 2008 Newark corps.

6. Wilhelmina A. Leigh & Malinda A Lindquist, Women of Color Health Data Book 15 (1998).

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