Etymology: What's with all the big words in science?

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To familiarize students with the history of scientific terminology and provide opportunities to practice "decoding" scientific terms with the help of a list of prefixes and suffixes.

Big Idea

Students understand the origin and rationale of using scientific terminology and equip themselves to understand the terms they will encounter throughout the course.


I like to start the year on comfortable ground for my students, and in this case that means tying science to history and language arts so that students have a sense of how science is built upon other types of knowledge.  Since scientific terminology pervades all the content of the course, it's especially important to be explicit about the more simple meanings of the prefixes and suffixes that make up scientific terms sooner rather than later.  This allows students to go beyond rote memorization of terms and begin to conceptualize the underlying meanings of the terms as they encounter them.  In this way, students are equipped with powerful tools to approach new vocabulary that they will encounter in class and in their own research.  

The standard for this lesson speaks to developing students' capacity to read and write domain-specific vocabulary at the college and career level.  As a colleague once said, the Common Core standards ask us to wear many hats and truly be competent multi-subject teachers.  Whether it's for majors or careers in psychology, law, medicine, or literature, improving students' familiarity and faculty with etymological understandings of academic language seems like a worthwhile goal.  


Warm up

5 minutes

I start the lesson by asking students if they've seen any good movies lately and after a few students share, I'll say something like, “If you’re anything like me, one of the best parts of going to see a movie in the theater is the previews or coming attractions”.  Then I’ll write the word “preview” on the board and ask students what the two parts of the word are (“pre-” and “-view”).  This provides an excellent opportunity to review what prefixes and suffixes are (especially by using THE prefix to make the point).  

After this quick attention getter and the basic explanation that many “big words” are actually made up of smaller parts, I will explain that science has it’s own terminology built upon some basic prefixes and suffixes that have their origin in ancient Greek and Latin.

Direct Instruction

15 minutes

After the quick intro, I will distribute the list of scientific prefixes and suffixes and will then show a quick powerpoint presentation explaining the historical reasons why Greek and Latin (as opposed to other ancient languages) form the basis of scientific terminology.  I think it's important to go into the history of scientific terminology so that students understand that modern science is part of a longer tradition with roots in classical antiquity and the renaissance.  Again, I always strive to connect science with other subjects to dispel the notion that knowledge is as compartmentalized as it may seem to seem to high school students taking separate subjects.        

The last few slides of the powerpoint offer opportunities for the whole class to practice decoding scientific terms (“pachyderm” and “hypothermia” are the examples given).  Asking students to use their “list of scientific prefixes and suffixes” resource, we'll break each term into prefix and suffix and then have one side of the class find the meaning of the prefix while the other side finds the meaning of the suffix.  

I'll walk around briefly and check for understanding during this quick practice by asking questions like, “ok… what does pachy- mean?  what does derm- mean? what would that mean put together?” etc.  Then we share out the literal meaning, "pachyderm = thick skin", and, after asking if anyone knows what a pachyderm is and allowing them to share, I explain that it's a term to describe certain mammals, including elephants, with thick skin.  This example helps to demonstrate the logic of scientific terminology in a way that's readily apparent to most students (i.e., not every animal with thick skin is a pachyderm, but the term does make sense to describe this group of animals based on an easily observable characteristic).  

A note on the resource itself: although this is the only lesson where the list of prefixes and suffixes is the focal point, I do ask students to keep it in their class binder as a resource to be used throughout the year (e.g., I will occasionally put new vocabulary terms on the board as an intro to a lesson and ask students to decode it using the list of prefixes and suffixes).


Guided Practice

25 minutes

After the powerpoint, I distribute the scientific terminology worksheet and ask students to work on it during class.  Although most of the terms can be decoded using the mini list of prefixes and suffixes on the worksheet, I encourage students to use the longer list I distributed earlier as that is the one they will keep and use throughout the year (and yes, I keep several extra copies handy to redistribute as necessary later).  

Since the assignment is fairly straight forward and not too challenging for more advanced students, I add an additional requirement:

“Choose 5 of the terms from the list and find their actual definition.  Explain why the prefixes and suffixes chosen for the scientific term make sense for the phenomenon the term describes.  (e.g,: “pachyderm” is a term for a group of animals including elephants, hippopotami, and rhinoseroses.  Using the prefix “pachy” (thick) and the suffix “derm” (skin) to describe these animals makes sense because they all have very thick skin.)” 

The "actual definition" is what the word actually means in a scientific sense (i.e., "pachyderms" describe a specific group of animals and not just anything with "thick skin").  Students are encouraged to use online or offline dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks or other resources to find these definitions.

As students work on the worksheet, I walk around the class checking for understanding by quizzing individual students about some of the terms on the worksheet to make sure they are able to both break the terms into prefixes and suffixes and find their meanings.  I generally allow students to work with their table partner as an additional resource and to make it more a bit more social relative to the direct instruction section.  

Wrap up/Review

15 minutes

For the last 10-15 minutes of class, we'll do a wrap-up of the lesson.  To make sure that students correctly decoded the terms according to the list of prefixes and suffixes, I'll go down the list of the scientific terms from the worksheet and call on students to share their answers (e.g., "hypodermic"... hypo=under and derm=skin).  This gives all students an opportunity to check their own work while also holding students accountable for having done the work up to that point. 

After that short review, I pose the question:  “Why do scientists need to have these basic rules for creating new terminology?  Why not just use “common names?”  Discussions will vary according to the personalities in each class, but my aim is for students to understand that scientific terminology is a kind of academic shorthand that allows scientists to communicate important facts about something that may not be apparent in a common name.

If time allows following the short discussion, I ask students to share out some of the definitions* they found for the terms and short explanations as to why the scientific terms make sense for the phenomenon (e.g., "hypodermic" makes sense because a hypodermic needle goes "under skin").


In some cases, not all students will finish the second part of the assignment (the actual definitions) during class time.  In this case, I would assign the rest of the worksheet as homework.