Purpose: Students will learn how journalists use scientific studies to develop news stories by analyzing a Science News article and the scientific study on which it is based.

Procedural overview: For homework, ask students to read the Science News article “A new chameleon species may be the world’s tiniest reptile” and the Nature study “Extreme miniaturization of a new amniote vertebrate and insights into the evolution of genital size in chameleons.” Then, lead a class discussion about the basics of science journalism. Working in groups, students will compare the Science News article with the scientific study to figure out how the reporter put the news article together and think about different articles that could be written that are based on the study. If you want to use a different combination of open-access scientific study and Science News article with this activity, you can search the Science News archive to find another pairing. As a possible extension, students can write a 500-word news article based on an open-access scientific study.

Approximate class time: 1 class period

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Whiteboard (optional)

Computer with word processing software

Science Journalism” teacher background sheet 

Think like a science journalist” student worksheet

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Before students do this activity, ask them to read the Science News article “A new chameleon species may be the world’s tiniest reptile” and the Nature study “Extreme miniaturization of a new amniote vertebrate and insights into the evolution of genital size in chameleons” for homework. Another version of the Science News article, “A new chameleon species is extremely compact,” appears in the March 13, 2021 issue of Science News.

Suggest that students take a few notes when they read and highlight any facts they find interesting or consider to be important. The notes are meant to help students in their analysis. Students can use the activity “Taking notes and creating visual summaries” to help them with the homework assignment.

Want to make this a virtual lesson? Lead the class discussion using Zoom, Blackboard or some other meeting software. Students can submit their answers to questions and writing projects via e-mail.

Class discussion

Use the following questions and the Science Journalism background sheet to guide a class discussion about science journalism. Students should understand how science reporters dissect a scientific study to find information that will be presented in a news article. Explain how the study also can help the reporter formulate questions for interviews with the scientists who did the work and with other scientists who might comment on the study.

1. What factors does a journalist consider when deciding which scientific findings to cover?

The journalist will ask whether a scientific finding is a new discovery and whether it contradicts or more fully supports what was previously known. Will this finding save lives or change how people view the world, or is it simply something fascinating that people might want to know?

2. What is the subject of the scientific study and the related Science News article?

The Nature study describes how scientists found a new chameleon species, Brookesia nana, which may be the world’s smallest chameleon. The researchers are trying to understand the factors that led to the evolution of such a small chameleon. The Science News article is a more general introduction to this new species.

3. Is the scientific study a primary source or secondary source? What about the Science News article? Explain the difference between primary sources and secondary sources.

The Nature study is a primary source as it is a firsthand account of the researchers’ findings. Primary sources come from people with firsthand knowledge about a subject. A primary source can be scientific papers, review papers or autobiographies written by researchers or interviews they have given. The Science News article is a secondary source because it is a report of work done by other people. Secondary sources are interpretations or explanations of original sources.

4. Why do you think the Science News journalist chose to write an article about this particular discovery?

Maybe the reporter thought readers would find it interesting to know about the discovery of a new species, especially one that might be a record holder for its small size. The information about the genitalia of male chameleons relative to their size is also a curious fact that might make readers continue reading the news article after they get past the lede.

5. Who is the intended audience for the scientific study and the news article?

The scientific article is intended for other scientists with knowledge of the field. The Science News article is meant for the general public.

Dissecting stories

Working in groups, students will analyze the Science News article and Nature study. Students should apply what they learned in the class discussion and use their homework notes to answer the following questions. Emphasize to students that they are to think like a reporter and figure out what are the most important and interesting pieces of information in the scientific study.

1. How does the Science News article convey to readers that the findings of the scientific study are important or interesting?

The article headline mentions that the chameleon might be the world’s smallest reptile, which is very interesting and would catch readers’ attention. This claim is repeated in the article’s first paragraph. The rest of the article provides details about the chameleon and explains what the finding means for scientists’ understanding of reptile evolution and conservation — both important topics.   

2. Note key pieces of information (who, what, where, when, why and how) and where that information appears in the Science News article and in the scientific study.

Who: Herpetologist Frank Glaw of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich and his colleagues. In the Science News article, this information appears rather early, in the second paragraph. In the Nature study, this information appears under the study title before the introduction.

What: Researchers found a new species of chameleon, named
Brookesia nana, that may be the smallest reptile on Earth. In the Science News article, this information appears in the first paragraph right after the lede — the article’s first sentence that is meant to hook the reader. In the Nature study, this information appears in the abstract and in the Systematics section.

Where: Researchers found the chameleon in a forest in northern Madagascar. In the Science News article, this information appears in the lede. In the Nature study, this information appears in the abstract and in the Systematics section.

When: Researchers discovered the new species in 2012. This information does not appear in the
Science News article. In the Nature study, this information appears in the Systematics section and in the Materials and Methods section.

Why: It is unknown why B. nana is so small. In the Science News article, this information appears in the third paragraph, after the reporter details how small individuals of the species are and puts its size in context by comparing it with other small chameleons. In the Nature study, this information appears in the Discussion section.

How: How B. nana and its relatives shrank is also unknown, though scientists suggest a concept known as the island rule might play a role. This information does not appear in the Science News article. In the Nature study, this information appears in the Discussion section.

3. How does the way that the Science News article organizes information compare with how the scientific study organizes information?

The Science News article presents the main finding of the scientific study first and explains why the finding is important before providing background information. The Nature study presents background information and methods before the main finding and discussion of why the finding is important.

4. Are there any elements of a news article that you learned about in the class discussion that are not included in the Science News article? Why might those elements be missing from the article?

Student answers will vary. Students may note that the article does not include quotes from a coauthor of the scientific study or from an outside source. This might be because the scientists were unavailable for an interview before the reporter’s deadline or before the article was published.

5. Besides the scientific study, what other sources of information are cited in the Science News article? Why do you think the reporter included those sources in the article?

The article refers to a study from 2016 about chameleon tongues. That study found that small chameleons were better than larger chameleons at “ballistic tongue projection.” In other words, the small chameleons were better at sticking out their tongues quickly to catch dinner. The reporter may have included it in the article to help support the idea that there might be a feeding advantage in being a small chameleon. However, no research has been done to determine the ballistic tongue capabilities of Brookesia nana.

6. Compare and contrast the writing styles of the Science News article and scientific study. Think about the language, voice and tone used in each piece of writing.

Student answers will vary. Students may mention that the Nature study and the Science News article are both examples of expository writing. This kind of writing is meant to deliver information in a clear, factual and objective way. The authors of the Nature study used the language of science, which is clear to their fellow scientists. The Science News reporter conveyed several of the complicated ideas from the scientific study, but used simpler language that can be understood by people who can read at a high school level. The Nature study was written in first- and third-person voice, an appropriate combination for people writing about their own work and experiences. The Science News article was in third-person voice, the standard choice for most news articles. The tone for the scientific paper is formal; the reporter’s tone is less formal and more engaging and accessible. He immediately hooks the reader by saying the chameleon was small enough to “tumble off the tip of your finger.”

7. Provide examples where the reporter simplified scientific language or concepts to help the general reader.

Student answers will vary. Students may mention that the scientific study dealt with evolution and how various chameleons are related, but that the reporter left out the genetic and phylogenetic information. He instead focused more on natural history and conservation details, which are probably of greater interest to a general audience. The reporter also used familiar language. For example, he used “chameleons” instead of “amniotes” and “genitalia” instead of “hemipenes.” He also gave a simplified explanation for the advantages of being small — at least for a chameleon. The Science News article did not include direct quotes from the researchers. But the paraphrasing of the scientists’ ideas and using “the researchers say” and “colleagues suggest” made their research more accessible.

8. Practice simplifying. Take a sentence from the news article and phrase it in an even simpler way. Include the original sentence for reference.

Original sentence: Why B. nana and its cousins shrank to such minuscule proportions remains a mystery, though smallness does have its benefits: There’s some evidence that small chameleons are especially good shots with their ballistic tongues.

Rewrite: Why B. nana and its cousins became teeny-tiny remains a mystery. But being small can have benefits. Some evidence suggests that small chameleons are especially good shots, using their ballistic tongues to catch prey.

More stories to tell

Students should think about what questions they have after reading the Science News article. They should also consider other things an article about the scientific study could have focused on. Then, putting themselves in a reporter’s shoes, students will propose an article they would write based on the scientific study. They will think about what questions the article should answer and who they would need to talk with to find the answers. If students cannot finish during class, have them complete the questions for homework.

1. After reading the Science News article, what additional questions would you want to ask the scientists who did this research?

Student answers will vary. Examples of questions students may ask include: Given that the chameleons are so tiny, can you tell me more about how you found them? How likely is it that there are more of them? What role might these chameleons have in their ecosystem? What did you do with the chameleons after you studied them?

2. When journalists read a scientific paper, they get different kinds of information from the various sections. Look at the abstract, materials and methods, discussion and references. Write down any pieces of information that interest you that are not mentioned in the Science News article.

Student answers will vary. Students may indicate they are curious about the “island rule” mentioned in the scientific article. The rule suggests that on islands small species of lizards become even smaller than their relatives on the mainland. I wondered how the chameleon work in Madagascar by Glaw and his colleagues and other scientists could address questions around the island rule. Why do small lizards go smaller and smaller, but when small mammals evolved on islands, they got bigger?

I was also interested in the information about the conservation status of chameleons.

3. Considering your answers to the previous two questions, propose an article that you would write. What would the article be about?

Answers will vary. I might want to write a broader article looking more specifically at the evolution of chameleons to explore the island rule. Who is big and who is small and why? The topic isn’t news in a general sense, but it could be a “gee whiz, isn’t that interesting story.”

The discovery of B. nana could be used as a jumping-off point for an article about the conservation status of reptiles generally in Madagascar. If this little species is still there, what other undiscovered species might still be there?

4. What additional information could help you write the article?

Answers will vary. If I am to write about the island rule and reptiles, I would need more information about the sizes of chameleons and other reptiles from a variety of islands and mainland locations, and I would need to fully understand the island rule.

If I write a conservation article, I need to know what is being done to look for species before they disappear and what protections the government of Madagascar has in place to protect reptiles, which don’t get the same kind of positive attention as birds and mammals.

5. Is the additional information included in the scientific study? If not, how could you find the information? What types of sources would you look for?

Answers will vary. Detailed information on the island rule and Madagascar’s conservation policies is not included in the scientific study. The researchers who did the original fieldwork would know about the island rule and would probably know a significant amount about conservation. I could interview them. I could also do a search of the scientific literature for primary sources about the island rule. Searching for secondary sources such as news stories might get me some current information about conservation in Madagascar.

6. If you want to get information from a different scientist who might know about this research, how would you find that person?

Answers will vary. I would look at the references from the Nature study to see who else is doing work on chameleons. I can find their institutions from the referenced work, and then I can Google them to get their specific contact information and more details about their research. I could also ask the scientists who coauthored the Nature study for suggestions of experts in their field who they have not collaborated with.

Optional extension

Have students write a 500-word news article based on an open-access scientific study that you assign. One place to find links to open-access studies is in the Science News archive. If you choose to assign a study that Science News has covered previously, do not give the students the Science News article until they have completed their writing project. The students can then see how their version compares with an article written by a journalist.

Students’ articles should include a lede, a nut graf, general background and a quote either from the scientific study or from an interview. Students must supply all other references they used to write their piece. Remind them that good science articles include evidence from primary sources, an analysis where the writer helps the reader understand why an article matters and lively, engaging language.

Some students might want to compete in the New York Times STEM Writing Contest, which is sponsored by the Times and Science News. The annual contest opens in January, and the rules governing the contest will be posted on the Learning Network at the New York Times.


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