Summer Reading List (For Teachers Who Love STEM)

Last summer, I published a list of things you could do for your own pleasure during the summer that could also add to your science content knowledge and classroom repertoire.

Now that school is over for another year, it’s time to do that again, however this year’s brief list focuses exclusively on summer reading. It includes two recent books that are well-written, entertaining, and address very current science topics. The third book is a good addition to your STEM library when you might be on the lookout for a quick and dirty explanation of a science concept complete with drawings you could easily reproduce for your students. And then I’ll remind you of another entertaining and informative book I recently reviewed that would be a breezy summer read … think global warming as you bake in the sun. That’s not to take anything away from those beach books we all love to dive into on a beautiful summer day, but there’s an added bonus if a book also happens to prime your pump for the inevitable return of school. You know it’s coming!

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders (2015)

I hated coming to the end of this clever, informative book. As I write this I have potatoes boiling on the stove for potato salad because … who knew? … cooked potatoes feed the good bacteria in the lower intestine and are mostly indigestible by the bad. Filled with useful information for understanding how the digestive system works and what it needs and needs to avoid in order to remain healthy, the book is at its best in making that information easily understandable and accessible through analogies and funny scenarios.

But here’s a sample:

“Good bacteria defend our gut – it is, after all, their home and they do not willingly surrender their territory to bad bacteria. Sometimes they defend the gut by occupying the very places pathogens like to infect us most. When a bad bacterium turns up, it finds them sitting in its favorite spot with satisfied grins on their faces and their handbags on the seats next to them, leaving no room for anyone else to take up residence. Should that signal not be explicit enough – no problem! Security service bacteria have more tricks up their sleeves. For example, they can produce small amounts of antibiotics or other defensive substances that drive unfamiliar bacteria out of their immediate vicinity. Or they use various acids, which not only protect yogurt and sauerkraut from rotting bacteria, but also make our gut a less inviting environment for bad bacteria. Another trick is to snatch the bad bacteria’s food away (another with siblings may be familiar with this strategy). Some probiotic bacteria seem to have the ability to steal bad bacteria’s food from right under their noses. Eventually, the bad guys have had enough and give up.”

Bacterium with handbags? Seriously?

If your teacher juices are now flowing (no allusion to the book intended), you are already seeing possibilities for student role-playing, drawings (there are very clever line cartoons in the book that would be easy for you to replicate), and a RAFT activity. It’s also a goldmine for all of those NGSS Crosscutting Concepts. It turns out that gut science illustrates them all.

Each Crosscutting Concept  is Represented in Gut.

Each Crosscutting Concept is Represented in Gut.

For that unit on body systems, or ecosystems for that matter (since we are all walking around with or own internal ecosystems), you’ll be sure to find useful background knowledge, much of it so recent that it’s not in textbooks yet. The book covers all the parts and pieces and workings of the human digestive system, so there is great content for the Life Science Disciplinary Core Ideas topics you’ll be designing lessons on. And the better you understand something yourself, the better you’ll be able to facilitate the learning of that content by your students.

On a side note: The book was originally published in German in 2014 and went to the top of the paperback charts almost immediately. The author was 24 when she wrote the book. The account of its success in The Guardian points out that “Few know that only the last of our digestive tract’s eight meters deals with feces, that it produces more than 20 kinds of hormone, contains more than a thousands species of bacteria and is controlled by a nervous system that is almost as complex as the brain’s. And Enders argues that even scientists like her – a 24-year-old doctoral student at Frankfurt’s Goethe University – have only in recent years started to explore the possibility that the health of our bowels could have a more direct influence on our mental wellbeing, our motivation, memory and sense of morality than our DNA.”

Highly recommended! Gut is an entertaining read from which you’ll learn a lot to inform not only your teaching but also your life. And I’m heading out a bit later to buy some endive and an artichoke to keep my good bacterium happily in charge of my large intestine

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (2015)

When Bill Nye famously debated Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, last year, he took a lot of flack from the scientific community for even stooping to humor Creationists, thereby somehow dignifying their position. Scientists accept evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life on the planet, so their incredulity that Nye would debate the question is understandable. However, as Brian Alters, the president of the National Center for Science Education points out “Approximately half of the U.S. population thinks evolution does (or did) not occur. While 99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution, 40 to 50 percent of college students do not accept evolution and believe it to be ‘just’ a theory.” Currently, in fact, 42% of the American public simply don’t believe it. So Ham’s position has a rather large following.

It is that group of people Bill Nye has set out to educate on the topic and his latest salvo takes the form of a fact-filled, humorously written book that begins with the Nye/Ham debate arguments and spreads out to investigate the overwhelming evidence scientists have assembled over the last 150 years that we are, in fact, the result of an evolutionary development spanning some 4 billion years, continuing into the present, and for millennia to come.

More specifically, Nye is addressing the children of Creationists, the coming generations.

“I feel strongly that we need the young people of today to become the scientists and the engineers of tomorrow so that my native United States continues to be a world leader in discovery and innovation. If we suppress science in this country, we are headed for trouble.” “Creationism strikes me as an astonishing waste of time and energy. I would love to be able to ignore it and focus on the real science, but creationists work very hard to disrupt science education and force their weird worldview on our students. So let’s make the best of an unfortunate situation, and us the creationist attacks as a learning opportunity. … Think about how evolution works, on all scales of space and time. Viruses mutate from day to day. Fish evolved into land animals and eventually begat dinosaurs and blue whales over hundreds of millions of year. It’s a beautiful, complicated story on all scales. So please: Think big, and think critically.”

By interweaving his personal story into the vast story of creation, Nye humanizes the science content, making it more engaging and more memorable. But his best achievement in this book is his ability to inspire a sense of awe and wonder at what humankind has been able to understand about its own origins and its connection to all of the rest of creation. And Nye attributes some of the distance of the American public from science to fear and  to the “joyless way” in which many of us learned science in school. (Note to teachers!)

“If you believe public opinion polls, about half of the American public does not accept the proposition that life on Earth— including humans— is the product of billions of years of natural evolution. At the same time, these same people seem to accept everything else that scientific discoveries and diligent engineering bring us. They don’t doubt the chemical synthesis in their food, the electrical physics in their smartphones, or the relativistic corrections (Einstein’s theory of relativity) that keep their GPS (Global Positioning System) signal accurate. Perhaps, as I speculated earlier, fear is part of what holds many people back from embracing evolution. If so, that puts a special responsibility on the scientists and those of us who write about them. If fear is pulling people one way, then we have a public responsibility to pull people back the other way and offer something just as powerful, something wondrous. Too often, this is not what happens. I have met a great many people, who have told me that they were exposed to science in a joyless way. They were forced to learn about science as a series of obscure facts with a bunch of confusing equations to memorize. They were given a general sense that the world is difficult and a bit annoying to see through the eyes of a scientist. My, oh my, do I have a different view of the world.” 

Being a Scientist Is for Everyone!

Through the Eyes of a Scientist!

Nye’s chapter on race is brilliant and particularly timely after Charleston and other recent tragedies. In it, Nye asserts that “there is no such thing as different races of people. Any differences we traditionally associate with race are a product of our need for vitamin D and our relationship to the Sun. Just a few clusters of genes control skin color; the changes in skin color are recent; they’ve gone back and forth with migrations; they are not the same even among two groups with similarly dark skin; and they are tiny compared to the total human genome. So skin color and “race” are neither significant nor consistent defining traits. We are all descended from the same African ancestors, with little genetic separation from each other. The different colors or tones of skin are the result of an evolutionary response to ultraviolet light in local environments. Everybody has brown skin tinted by the pigment melanin. Some people have light brown skin. Some people have dark brown skin. But we all are brown, brown, brown.”

Undeniable is entertaining, inspiring, and information-packed on topics you would cover in addressing NGSS Life Sciences Disciplinary Core Ideas LS3A – Inheritance of Traits; 
LS3B – Variation of Traits
; LS4A – Evidence of Common Ancestry
; LS4B – Natural Selection
; LS4C – Adaptation; and 
LS4D – Biodiversity & Humans. You might also enjoy a blast from the past in the Bill Nye, The Science Guy episode on Biodiversity. And you can read an interview of Bill Nye on his motivation to write Undeniable here.

There is one question Nye asks in Undeniable has stayed with me, and it’s one we as teachers ought to ponder. “How did we let an ideological resistance to inquiry become such a prominent part of our society?” I would add, “What are we teachers going to do about it in our classrooms and schools and through our professional organizations?” The science supporting evolution is undeniable.

The Science Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (2014)

An essential history of scientific concepts and the individuals who discovered them, the illustrations alone make this a book worth having in your STEM library. Each scientific advance is presented in chronological order in its own separate mini-chapter. A chart at the head of each chapter places the concept within its discipline, with the concepts it built upon and the discoveries that followed upon it. Straightforward diagrams and ample illustrations make each concept crystal clear. And the story of each discovery includes quotations from the scientist involved as well as glimpses into the process of doing science.

For example, in the don’t try this at home department, there is the story of Alexander Volta who used his own body as a detector of electricity. “Volta describes in detail the various unpleasant sensations that result from putting one hand in the bowl at one end of the chain and touching a wire attached to the other end to the forehead, eyelid, or tip of the nose: ‘I feel nothing for some moments; afterward, however, there begins at the part applied to the end of the wire, another sensation, which is a sharp pain (without shock), limited precisely to the point of contact, a quivering, not only continued but which always goes on increasing to such a degree, that in a little time it becomes insupportable, and does not cease until the circle is interrupted.’” OUCH!!!!

A short biography of the scientist responsible for the discovery ends each chapter, which is also cross-referenced to other related scientists.

This is more a book you will dip into for background knowledge when you are preparing a unit on batteries or magnetism, let’s say, rather than a book you’ll read from cover to cover. But it’s still interesting reading wherever you happen to pop in.

For all you Kindle owners out there, as this goes to post, the Kindle version of this book is only $1.99. You can also download a free app to read it on your iPad. Grab it while you can. It’s part of the DK series, and a treasure trove of information about all those scientific concepts you’ll be helping your students grasp. Plus with its emphasis on the human beings behind the science, there are some fascinating stories that are likely to hook the interest of your students.

And, if you haven’t already done so, please check out a book we recently reviewed on climate change, How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate by Seth Darling and Doug Sisteron (2014). It’s a fast and fun read that will get you all set for teaching climate change science next school year.

Enjoy your summer!!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


Filed under book review, science teaching

4 responses to “Summer Reading List (For Teachers Who Love STEM)

  1. !

    these are fabulous! you sound so terrific! thank you! Mary


  2. I can’t wait to get some of these books! Thanks for the great suggestions!!


  3. Thanks for the great suggestions! I can’t wait to read them!
    Kathryn Doyle


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