Teaching High School Science

For many, Science (with a capital S) is a thing done by nerds in white lab coats, a study for the select few who discover the hidden laws of the universe and create the technologies of the future.

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But at its core, science is simply the systematic investigation of the world around us; and anyone with a sense of wonder regarding the world and how it works will find the study of science interesting and rewarding—be they “nerds” or not.

Is teaching high school science for me?

High school science teachers have to be able to meet an extraordinary challenge: They have to teach a specific science content requiring a specialized vocabulary to a wide variety of students—many of whom are not particularly interested in that branch of science, or in science at all. In doing so, teachers need to master a variety of educational methods, including direct instruction, guided learning, inquiry-based learning, and laboratory practices. The effective high school science teacher must be both enthusiastic about and expert in his or her subject, ready to answer students’ questions either directly, by guiding them to realize the answer themselves, or by directing them to an outside resource (because no teacher has all the answers).

Traditionally, direct instruction (lecture) has been the primary mode of teaching science, focusing on the transmission of scientific facts. Today, many schools and national associations advise more guided and inquiry-based learning, focusing on the understanding of scientific processes. Both methods must be employed (although the balance will vary according to the teacher’s expertise, students’ skills, and the school’s guidelines). Adequate knowledge of facts and categories give students the background they need to learn new concepts, while familiarity with the scientific process gives them the ability to review and evaluate scientific claims (such as the constant parade of diet and drug claims announced by the news media).

International Rankings – 8th grade science:
  1. Singapore
  2. Taiwan
  3. Japan
  4. South Korea
  5. England/Wales
  6. Hungary
  7. Czech Republic
  8. Slovenia
  9. Hong Kong
  10. Russia

Source: 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

Many lessons use a high-interest “anticipatory set” to introduce the lesson or prompt questions about a topic. In an anticipatory set, an engaging demonstration or problem is presented, based upon whatever scientific principle will be discussed in that lesson.

An important component of science education is lab work. In a lab assignment, students investigate a scientific principle through hands-on learning, often working in groups and almost always recording their observations in a lab workbook. Lab activities come in many different forms. Some are observation activities (for example, identifying cells through a microscope); some are “cookbook” demonstrations, in which students follow specific step-by-step instructions to observe a pre-determined result; while others are open-ended explorations. In lab activities, students must make careful observations, use correct measurements (and mathematics, when applicable), and analyze data.

Science teachers also participate in developing students’ communication skills, because science content cannot be mastered apart from language skills. Science teachers can encourage this through the use of both short, frequent assignments and longer, once-or-twice-a-semester projects. For a daily activity, students can write paragraphs summarizing what they’ve learned in a lecture or lab activity. A semester-long project might be to research a scientific topic and write an 8-10 page paper. The ability to research a topic (including citing research in a paper), and review the existing scientific literature on a matter is a foundational skill for all scientific investigation; science teachers must be prepared to require this of their students, instead of expecting all language instruction to be handled by the English teachers.

Here’s an overview of the types of science classes you might be expected to teach at the high school level:

Physical Science

Students in physical science are taught about the structure of matter, and become familiar with the periodic table of elements. They learn about mass, density, and the conservation of matter and energy. Instruction covers topics on waves, heat and thermodynamics, and electromagnetic forces. (Note: Occasionally, a school will have a Physical Science class that actually has the content of an Earth Science class—which can cause confusion when investigating school districts and/or applying for jobs.)

Earth Science

The earth sciences include geology (the study of the earth crust; that is, rocks and minerals), oceanography, meteorology (the study of the weather), and astronomy. Students learn about major earth cycles, including the rock cycle, the water cycle, and the circulation of ocean currents. This class tends to have less lab time than biology, chemistry, or physics, because many of the earth processes and cycles cannot be easily represented in a lab. While Earth Science is often a freshman class, some college-prep schools have an AP Environmental Science class offered to their seniors bound for college.


Biology students learn about the classification of organisms and about evolutionary theory. Students are introduced to the different kingdoms of organisms, the phyla of animals, the classes of arthropods and vertebrates, and the orders of mammals. They study both cell biology and the biology of multi-cellular creatures. Lab activities include using microscopes on cells, and the dissection of an animal (commonly a frog or fetal pig).


Two common reactions taught:


Plants use air, water, and the energy of the sun to produce their own food/biomass:

carbon dioxide + water + sunlight = glucose + oxygen

6(CO2) + 6(H2O) + energy → C6H12O6 + 6O2

Cellular Respiration:

Animals use food and air to produce the energy they need to move and grow:

glucose + oxygen = carbon dioxide + water + energy

C6H12O6 + 6O2 → 6(CO2) + 6(H2O) + energy

Chemistry students investigate the properties of elements and compounds, and how they may react with one another to form new compounds with different properties. They learn about the various groups on the periodic table, including the alkali metals, the halogens, and the noble gasses. They also learn about different varieties of molecules, including about acids and bases, organic molecules, and hydrocarbons, and become able to identify different molecular groups in a compound. Chemistry students spend a lot of time in laboratory work, observing chemical reactions and describing them on paper in chemical equations (see the sidebar for an example). Students also investigate how certain chemical reactions use or release energy, such as in photosynthesis or in metabolic reactions.


Physics is an elective class for high school seniors. Students in this class investigate motion and force, energy, electricity and magnetism, heat and waves, and gravitation. Study in this subject involves a great deal of lab work, and the application of mathematics (either algebra or calculus, depending upon the level of the class).

What’s the job market like?

Current job-growth rate (nationally) for high school teachers is 7 percent, slower than the average for all occupations; but differences in state standards, such as teacher-student ratios, will result in greater growth in some regions than others. Enrollment in the South and West is expected to grow the most, while student enrollment in the Northeast is actually expected to decline. Opportunities are currently greater in urban and rural areas than they are in suburban areas.

While nationally the need for high school teachers is fairly balanced with the number of new teachers each year, many schools report difficulties finding teachers for math and science. Teachers credentialed to teach the sciences—particularly chemistry and physics—are currently experiencing the highest demand for their services.

Does it pay well?

Salaries for teaching high school science vary from state to state, depending upon state budgeting and the degree of federal funding; the median salary nationwide is $53,230, well above the national median average for all jobs ($33,840). On top of that, public school teachers tend to have substantial benefits packages. Additionally, teachers get about two months of the year off from work (during the summer for traditional schedules, but year-round schools still provide the same time off). Many schools give teachers the option of being paid either on a 10 month or a 12 month schedule.

At schools on a traditional schedule, many teachers get additional paid work by teaching summer school. Another way for teachers to increase their pay is to coach or advise an extracurricular activity, for which they receive a stipend.

Salaries at public schools are often dictated by union rules: pay increases with number of years teaching, and with educational degree. Tenure is available for most teachers after only a few years.

How do I get started?

Most public schools require teachers to possess a state teaching credential. The component requirements of such credential may vary from state to state, but a public school in one state will accept a teaching credential from another state. You can view your state’s requirements at teaching-certification.com.

Most states expect you to major in your content area. A teaching credential program after obtaining you bachelor’s degree will include classes on educational methods, developing curriculum, and often psychology; there will also be a semester of fieldwork (student teaching with a master teacher). You will have to pass a state examination (such as the Praxis II or the CSET) in your content area in order to receive your single subject teaching credential. Teachers do not obtain a credential to teach all high school science classes, but a specific high school science—one credential for biology, a separate one for chemistry, another for physics. Many states require continued professional development after obtaining a teaching credential. Some states even require credentialed teachers to pursue a master’s degree.

America’s future in technology, medicine, engineering, and innovation depends upon raising new generations of capable scientists; and this depends largely upon our high school science classrooms, which introduce students to the substantive basics of chemistry, biology, and the physical sciences.

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