Pop Culture in the Science Classroom


When Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets about football, his 12 million followers delight in learning about physics through his in the moment observations. There’s a term for this called the “Pop Culture Scaffold”. Tyson uses the scaffold of popular culture (like the average American’s  basic knowledge of football) to show people how physics is at work in their world. Science teachers are so lucky because we have so many pop culture moments at the ready for teaching our curious kiddos. The Olympics, the latest pop song, and even (ugh) Fortnight can be bridges that connect our students to scientific concepts that they have not yet been able to name. Our students will benefit from our use of the pop culture scaffold as they stay engaged in lessons, have fun in learning, and tackle tough concepts through the lens of something familiar.

Don’t be afraid to get it wrong.

During a lesson, the first celebrity names that come to mind are always Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift. Just last week I said, “So many things in our world contain carbon. So that means plants, donuts…Justin Timberlake…” and the kids were like, “huh?”. It may not be the most on trend  example, but my high school students all have a mental image of Justin Timberlake. They probably picture JT at the Super Bowl halftime show attempting a selfie with an awkward teenager, while I still picture a crush worthy 1999 NSync version. Sometimes my references fall flat and that’s okay too. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. One of my favorite things from last year is when my 8th grade girls would roll their eyes and say *cringe* in response to one of my attempts at pop culture connection. Oh what satisfaction I got when I knew my lesson was keeping them awake!

Embed pop culture treats into your lessons.

In my conceptual physics class, I know the students are insecure when it comes to the math. So I like to spice things up with a GIF of Drake. I put this slide into my PowerPoint before every math practice. It’s a little signal to the students to relax, smile, and re-frame their feelings about math.giphy

My other ultimate favorite is my YouTube teacher hero, Mr. Parr. He writes parody songs about science that are equal parts cringe worthy and clever. I’ve used them with both middle and high school students with great results. Here’s a great tip:  Copy and paste the lyrics from the video description and make it into Cloze notes. Make blanks throughout so the students have something to do during the video other than pretend they don’t actually love it.

Use Pop Culture to Teach the Tricky Stuff

Scientific argumentation is a crucial piece of student learning in the NGSS framework. A popular way for students to demonstrate mastery of a concept or to write up a lab report is the Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning (CER) format (Haven’t heard of it? This is my all time favorite video explaining the CER). Students answer a guiding question with these three pieces of information. Many times, the students struggle to understand the evidence and reasoning portions of their write up. After attempting to explain it multiple times, I finally had the idea to connect the CER with something they know. So I created the guiding question, “What was the best song of 2017?”  Of course there will be many answers to this question in a single classroom, and most of those answers can be backed up by some kind of evidence. The amazing thing about 2017 is that the most popular song of the year was “Despacito”. I once heard a podcast about how “Despacito” is actually scientifically pleasing to our ears (Read more about that here). This CER lesson was engaging and fun and really got my students to own and understand the difference between reasoning and evidence. If you’d like this CER lesson already made here you go!

I hope you are inspired to infuse your lessons with pop culture!  May your heart be full and happy,


More pop culture lessons from Happy Teacher Heart

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