Directions for teachers: Have each student pick one of Science News’ Top 10 stories of 2019 to read. Ask students to answer questions No. 1 and 2 before they read (5 minutes). After students read the article on their own (10 minutes), have them answer questions No. 3 through 11 (20 minutes). Afterward, you can ask students to briefly summarize their article for the rest of the class. Note: If you’d like to dig deeper into summarization with your students, check out “How to write a summary” for a related exercise that includes tips on summary writing.

Top 10 stories include:

1. “First black hole image made its debut
Readability score: 10.8

The Event Horizon Telescope team reported the first direct image of a black hole this year. The image, a shadow of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87 against its glowing disk of gas and dust, aligns with expectations of what a black hole should look like according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The image also helped determine the best way to measure a black hole’s mass and offered good evidence that event horizons are real. Next, researchers hope to create movies of galaxy M87’s black hole and Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. 

2. “The fight against measles got intense
Readability score: 10.9

Measles is a serious illness that can lead to pneumonia and dangerous brain swelling, and leave immune systems vulnerable to other infections. The virus that causes measles sickened more than 1,200 people in the United States in 2019, which nearly cost the country its hard-won elimination status. Most cases occurred in people who hadn’t been vaccinated, or didn’t know whether or not they’d been vaccinated. Other countries, including Congo and Samoa, struggled with measles outbreaks this year. In Congo, about 250,000 people contracted measles and thousands died. Samoa was hit by a measles outbreak late in the year. More than 3,700 people contracted the disease, and dozens of people died.

3. “Student activists push for climate action
Readability score: 10.4

Millions of people, many of them students, marched to demand action on climate change this year. In March, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg led 1.6 million students in a worldwide climate strike. In September, a record-breaking 7.6 million people across the world participated in another strike during the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit. The protests happened alongside 2019’s record-breaking heat waves. The intense heat, along with wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme climate events, appear to be shifting everyday conversations away from debates over the existence of human-caused climate change toward climate change solutions.

4. “Dozens of deaths were linked to vaping this year
Readability score: 12.1

More than 2,000 people in the United States became ill from vaping THC products this year, and at least 47 people have died. Many were young and otherwise healthy. Federal officials suspect vitamin E acetate may be to blame, but it’s possible that more than one vaping ingredient is involved. Illnesses and deaths are linked to THC products, but nicotine vapers aren’t exempt from potential harm. About 28 percent of U.S. high school students reported vaping in a 30 day-period, a 2019 survey found. Besides the potential for an increased risk of heart disease and addiction to other drugs, vaping puts teens at higher risk of chronic respiratory symptoms.

5. “Denisovans emerged from the shadows
Readability score: 13.8

Several fossil and DNA finds reported in 2019 add to an increasingly complex portrait of Denisovans. Skeletal fragments and a facial reconstruction support the idea that these mysterious hominids — discovered in a Siberian cave — had a mix of traits unique to them and traits similar to other hominids with whom they mated, including Neandertals, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Denisovans weren’t confined to the cave or its immediate environment. A jaw bone places Denisovans on the Tibetan Plateau 160,000 years ago. And at least three genetically distinct populations mated with ancient human groups in parts of Asia, DNA evidence shows.

6. “CRISPR gene editing entered tests in people
Readability score: 12.0

Researchers began testing the safety and efficacy of the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 in people in the United States for the first time. A test of immune cells edited to enhance their cancer-fighting abilities suggests that the treatment is safe, but the cells didn’t slow patients’ cancer growth. In a different test, edited cells from two women with blood disorders appear to be safe and relieve disease symptoms. Scientists are also testing a treatment for an inherited form of blindness.

7. “Google claimed quantum supremacy
Readability score: 11.4

Google claimed that its quantum computer Sycamore is the first to achieve quantum supremacy — that is, performing a calculation that is impossible for even the world’s most powerful standard computer. In October, Google announced that Sycamore performed a calculation in 200 seconds that the researchers estimate would take a supercomputer thousands of years to solve. But IBM, another company pursuing quantum computing, cast doubt on Google’s claim. IBM said that an improved supercomputing technique could perform the calculation in a couple of days. 

8. “Big threats to biodiversity startled the world
Readability score: 12.4

Reports from nature stunned people this year. Burning in Brazil’s Amazon region is the worst it has been since 2005. A report by the United Nations estimated that around a million species face accelerated extinction due to habitat damage and loss. A separate analysis of American and Canadian birds found that the total bird population dropped by 3 billion since 1970. And a study about planting trees to capture huge quantities of carbon from Earth’s atmosphere stirred controversy. 

9. “Moon landings were all the rage in 2019
Readability score: 10.8

Trips to the moon in 2019 signaled the beginning of a moonshot renaissance. China’s Chang’e-4 lander touched down on the moon’s little-explored farside. The spacecraft’s rover found hints of lunar mantle mixed with surface soil — that may help scientists figure out how the moon, once a ball of molten rock, cooled and hardened. Israel and India also sent spacecraft toward the moon, but the spacecraft lost contact and crashed. China plans to launch another lunar lander in 2020, and NASA plans to send multiple landers over the next decade as part of a plan to send astronauts to Mars. The European Space Agency is working with Russia’s space agency on moon landing missions as well.     

10. “New drug approved for severe depression
Readability score: 12.2

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug for severe depression. Called Spravato, the nasal spray is the first fundamentally new drug for depression in decades. Derived from ketamine, Spravato is an anesthetic and hallucinogen. The drug comes with many side effects and can be abused, which is why the FDA requires that Spravato be administered in certified clinics. There are currently more than 2,000 certified clinics in the United States. But it’s not clear if the drug will work for everyone. Tests in people have had mixed results.

Student directions: Pick one of the SN Top 10 articles to read. Before reading the article, take 5 minutes to answer questions No. 1 and 2. Read your article silently for 10 minutes. Then take 20 minutes to answer questions No. 3 through 11. Be prepared to share your answers with the class.

1. Read the headline of the article. What background information do you already know about the topic based on the headline?

2. Given the headline, what do you want or expect to learn when you read the article?

3. What main finding or advance does the article describe? What scientific field(s) are related to the finding or advance?

4. What evidence supports the main finding or advance? How does the article present that evidence?

6. Who is quoted in the article? Describe the relationship that each person has to the finding or advance? Why do you think the author included their quote?

5. Is there anything controversial about the main finding or advance? Explain based on the evidence given in the article.

7. Does the main finding or advance leave any questions unresolved? If so, what do scientists hope to do next?

8. How does the article challenge your existing knowledge? Cite an example.

9. What questions do you have after reading the article?

10. Why do you think this article was chosen as one of the Top 10 science stories of the year?

11. What science news do you hope to read about in the coming year?

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