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Science Skills: Scientific Notation

In this series of blog posts, I have been writing about the importance of teaching "science skills" to our students.  (Previous posts include: Teach the Skills, Graphing Skills are Life Skills, and Applying the Scientific Method.)

The next skill that I would like to discuss is the proper use of scientific notation.  Scientific notation is used to express very small and very large numbers in a manner that makes problem solving easier.  Let's face it, chemistry students cannot enter Avogadro's number in their calculator unless it is in scientific notation.  In biology, viruses and bacteria are measured in nanometers and micrometers.  Both are simple examples of the need to use scientific notation in our science classes.

Many of the students entering my high school biology and chemistry classes are still struggling with how to write numbers in scientific notation.  Why is this?  I don't have the answer.  I worry that we are pushing middle school students to complete Algebra 1 and Geometry too early, and they are not getting the instruction they need in basic mathematics and arithmetic.

Whatever the reason, I find that I must spend a class period each year re-teaching this important skill.  Since my science classes use very large and very small numbers most every day, scientific notation is a must.  My students must be able to:
  • Write numbers in scientific notation.
  • Change numbers from scientific notion to standard form, and vice versa.
  • Add and subtract numbers that are in scientific notation.
  • Multiply and divide numbers that are written in scientific notion.
This is a much needed skill in a high school science class.  It is well worth the time to spend a class period reviewing and reinforcing these concepts.

The resources I use in my teaching can be found here:

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