Latino/Latina Scientist Project

3 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT conduct biographical research of a scientist.

Big Idea

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month in the context of scientific careers.


At my urban school, approximately 50% of the student body is of Hispanic heritage.  It is important to occasionally put the content aside and focus on how my class is relevant to students' culture.  Research on student career choice indicates that many students who are unaware of professionals from their culture in a given field, often overlook that field.  This is accentuated in STEM fields, where students of color rarely see role models that look like them.

I began doing this project in my physical science course four years ago.  Exposing students to professionals who have similar backgrounds encourages them and begins to spark the idea that perhaps they could enter a certain profession.  Since then, I have had more of my Latino students go on to major in STEM related fields, although it would be a stretch to take credit for this.

Ideally, this would be done between units, which didn't work out on the calendar this year. So I broke the periodic table unit up into two pieces, we covered the "how to use the periodic table" then paused and did this scientist research paper, and then returned to the periodic table trends and chemical bonding.

I am fortunate to have 14 computers in my science lab, but for this project I needed one computer per student.  To achieve this, we often share labs, with another teacher allowing half of my class to use the computers in their classroom.  This year, I chose to use one of our mobile netbook carts to supplement my classroom computers.  Additionally, many students preferred to work on their smartphones, reliving the tech burden.

While this is certainly not a Disciplinary Core based project, it does align nicely to Science and Engineering Practice #8: Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.  Later in the year, students will need to engage in open research as part of inquiry projects.  One of our building foci this year is based upon writing from evidence, so I am also using this project to assess where my students abilities are in terms of referring to their sources and creating a Works Cited list.

Project Introduction

10 minutes

When students enter the room, I pass out the Latino Latina Scientist Project paper.  Once they are seated, I explain that I felt we needed a break in the unit, and to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we will be doing a research paper on a Hispanic scientist.

I show the students where the link to the scientist list is on my class page, and how to navigate the SACNAS Biography site.  I then explain the requirements of the paper:

  • A minimum of four sources, organized into a works cited list at the end of the paper.
  • Information about the life, education and important contributions of their chosen scientist.
  • Paper must be original work, no copying and pasting.
  • Extra Credit available by making a poster.

I then ask about student questions.  The most common are "Does it have to be typed?" and "How long does it need to be?"  While I do not require it to be typed, if handwritten, it does need to be in dark ink.  As to length, I leave that up to the students.  I stress the importance of including all the information, and mention that with four sources, I'd expect a minimum of 2 pages typed.

Students tend to ask, "Does it has to be a five paragraph paper?"  I explain that organization of the paper should be based on their information.  While five paragraphs might work for some, others may find it easier to break it into more paragraphs based on how they outline their information.

Finally, we review the unit timeline, noting that there will only be two in-class work days, so students will need to schedule time to research or write on their own.  I tell them to use the space below each date to plan out their work.

We then transition back to the computers, or onto the netbooks to begin our research.

Initial Research

30 minutes

When students are confronted with the list of scientists on the web site, they tend to freeze up at first.  Most of the first day is helping students navigate what the different specialties are, so they can find someone in a career of interest to them.

Some students will elect to choose a Native American scientist from the lower list.  I allow this, as I highly value student choice in an assignment of this nature.

As students are winding down, I remind them that they can store websites in their Favorite Places and that it will follow them wherever they log in at school.  With 10 minutes left, I ask them to return to the front of the room.

Next Steps

10 minutes

When students return to the front of the room, I ask them how they will get three more sources.  Most students respond with searching for the person via web browser.  I take the time to point out one important fact: most of these scientists are still alive and working.  I encourage students to seek out their email, and send them a professional message asking permission to interview them via email for their paper.

Students look incredulous at this idea, but I have had three students try this in previous years, and each got a warm response from the person they found.  I encourage students to send an introduction email early, as they have 9 days to research and write.

We then briefly discuss what should be asked in an email interview of an expert.  Students tend at first to vague questions about what life was like for them growing up, and other overarching parameters of the assignment.  I direct students to using the interview as their last source: filling in the gaps they are missing, or asking direct, pointed questions to get an interesting story to help round out their essay.

When the bell rings, students leave, and one or two will hang back to ask about the how-to's of emailing their subjects.

This year, only two students emailed their subjects, and they did it with only a day before the due dates.  In the past, students have had much greater success, and I think in the future I will make a goal of the first day to find an email address and compose a request for an online interview.  This is powerful both for the students and the scientists.  I have always made it a point to follow up with the scientists and thank them for agreeing to be interviewed.

I have attached four sample essays by students.

Latino Essay 1 Showcases an average essay.  The student doesn't break his work into paragraphs, talks about the scientist's work without much evidence of understanding the work, and focuses on listing information more than telling the person's story.

Latino Essay 2 is one of my best.  This student wrote a full MLA bibliography, used one of his sources to better understand the work of Dr. Alderete, and explained the life and work of his scientist.  This student had been struggling in class, and this was the first assignment he showed an attention to detail that became his hallmark in the rest of the year.

Latina Paper 1 showcases a student who wrote more informally, with a focus on the life of her scientist more than the achievements and work.  She would have benefited from additional sources, but found a video interview on Vimeo that was a novel source.  I noticed after this project that this student followed Dr. Ingram's chemistry teacher's advice to "Just ask for help instead of saying 'I Quit!'"

Latina Paper 2 this was not a great effort by this particular student.  However, I included it to show how students may show deficiencies in one area or another.  This student earned an A in both semesters of chemistry, and will be taking AP Biology with the goal of majoring in marine biology.  The focus of the essay is the life of Dr. Zuniga, without much information on her work.  Had this student delved into the work of Dr. Zuniga on immunology and virology, she would have found a close alignment with her interests beyond the similarities in their family backgrounds.