Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Cultural Relevance

Book Cover


Involving Cultural Experts

Creating and implementing culturally responsive curriculum is a collaborative process involving local cultural experts as much as possible throughout the process. It involves an exchange of information and perspective in which the classroom teacher comes to understand what local knowledge is valued and held locally and by whom. It then involves the connection of these cultural experts and their knowledge to classroom practice.

But as many of you may know, creating such rich partnerships and exchanges is often easier said than done. On the one hand, teachers may not know where to start, who to ask or what to ask for. They may feel rebuffed in their first attempts or may feel that the answers they receive are unrelated to their question or that this information is not as significant as the curriculum they are mandated to teach. On the other hand, cultural experts may feel unaccustomed to such inquiries; may have had bad experiences in the past; may feel that the teachers aren’t truly listening; or may feel uncomfortable with the school or what is expected of them.

While it’s beyond the scope of this handbook to deal in depth with these complex issues, we have chosen two particularly relevant articles to help shed some light on the subject. The first, by Richard Glenn, thoughtfully portrays an Iñupiaq perspective on the sharing of knowledge about the local environment. The second, by Roby Littlefield, provides some pointers on working with Elders in the classroom. Beyond this, we refer you to the extensive work of Ray Barnhardt on teaching and learning across cultures, and to the work of Oscar Kawagley on Native ways of knowing (see references section of this handbook).

Beyond reaching out to the community yourself, students can also become involved in gathering and documenting local knowledge. This can be as basic as having students work with tapes or documents that are already in existence or it can involve them in gathering relevant information from such sources as their families, resource people, Elders groups and so on. It can take the form of informal interviews, note taking, audio or video recording or can be as complex as hosting an Elder’s conference on the topic of choice or creating a CD program documenting knowledge. Any way you do it, the point is for students to seek out and document local knowledge as a basis for further class investigations.

Topics of Cultural Significance

Topics for Integrating Cultural Knowledge and Science

  • medicinal and edible plants
  • weather
  • river dynamics
  • seasons
  • food gathering and preservation
  • navigation
  • animal behavior/habitat
  • tides
  • erosion and relocation
  • tools and technology
  • snow and ice
  • land forms
  • shelter and survival
  • anatomy
  • use of local material

The possibilities for integrating cultural knowledge and science are almost endless. The topics listed in the sidebar to the right are just a few of those most commonly mentioned.

The topic you choose to work on will depend a lot on your local environment, the seasonal appropriateness of such study, the science curriculum goals established for your grade level and what your Native partners want to teach about. With regard to the latter, it is likely that their choice of subject matter will be highly dependent upon two things: first, knowledge that is practical and can be applied to the real world; and second, the need to know.

The application of knowledge is of paramount importance in Native cultures and has traditionally been equated with the ability to survive. This emphasis on the practical application of knowledge has been reinforced over and over again in numerous conversations. As Richard Glenn, an Iñupiaq geologist in Barrow said, an Elder has little use for all of the physics formulas that describe sea ice movement, but knows intimately which ice is safe to walk on or travel through, and what ice conditions to watch for in order to stay safe when out hunting. The same could be said for weather prediction, hunting and fishing practices, navigation and so forth. As suggested later in this handbook, the implication of this is that students begin their science study with the application of knowledge and then work around to understanding why and how.

Related to the application of knowledge is the need to know. Plainly said, this means that you teach children what they need to know when they need to know it. For example, in Selawik, weather is never the first thing taught to children because until they start hunting, at age 12, they don’t really need to know. They are just traveling from home to school and only need to know the danger of the weather that is already there. Their parents help them dress appropriately for existing weather. Young children are taught to be careful observers of the world around them, but direct instruction about weather signs and prediction does not occur until there is the need to know associated with independent travel on the land in connection with such things as spring hunting for muskrat at about age 12.

Cultural Standards

The Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools ( were developed in 1998 by “Alaska Native educators to provide a way for schools and communities to examine the extent to which they are attending to the educational and cultural well being of the students in their care. Standards have been drawn up in five areas, including those for students, educators, curriculum, schools and communities. These standards serve as a complement to, not as a replacement for, the content standards adopted by the State of Alaska. While the state standards stipulate what students should know and be able to do, the cultural standards are oriented more toward providing guidance on how to get them there in such a way that they become responsible, capable and whole human beings in the process.” 1

As you develop culturally relevant science units, we encourage you to review these standards, thinking particularly about how your unit supports and enhances the cultural well being of the students. We also encourage you to try to be as specific as possible with regard to the cultural skills and knowledge gained AND to hold students accountable in some way for those gains. The following cover page for the Snowshoe Unit is one example of how to become more specific with regard to cultural standards. The science units posted on the ANKN web site and the units in the back of this handbook provide other examples.


1. Alaska Standards for Culturally-Responsive Schools, Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 1998, pp 2–3

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