STEM Education

Helping Students Experience Hands-on Learning Again

As students return to in-person school in the fall, a science specialist explains how she’ll apply the lessons she learned during distance learning.

As a science specialist who sees students for an hour each week to provide hands-on science opportunities to support their primary classroom learning, I faced some additional challenges that a more traditional teacher may not have faced during the pandemic. I’m certainly eager to get back into the classroom to help students begin exploring the natural world face to face, but at this point I don’t know exactly what the school day will look like. For the last month of the 2020–2021 school year, for example, my students were in the classroom, but since I see more than 400 of them each week, it was safer for me to be remote, beaming in on a device at the front of the class while their regular teacher tried to plan future classes.

Fortunately, over the last year we’ve all learned to make the best of challenging situations. I’ve even learned a few things that I’ll continue using to improve my practice long after COVID-19 is just a memory. Here are a few tips to help deliver engaging hands-on science lessons no matter what in-person learning looks like at your school this fall.

Helping Students Experience Hands-on Learning Again

Keep using remote tools where they make sense

One of the very few things that was improved by the pandemic for me was coordinating and planning with other teachers. Prior to the pandemic, I would go to their grade-level meetings and we’d talk science to figure out who would do which portion of the next module. Often, we didn’t meet enough and we’d get a little out of step, but I could talk to the kids to get a better idea of where they were.

This year, however, we’ve been meeting via Zoom, and we have a shared Google doc to keep track of it all. Our curriculum provider, Twig Science, was creating remote lessons to support teachers throughout the year, and as each module rolled out, we could divvy it up as we liked. The last module came out close enough to the end of the school year that classroom teachers had to do two lessons each week to finish in time. Thankfully, they were willing to do it, but I’m not sure they would have been as understanding if I were just explaining it in a grade-level meeting. I can tell them we have a lot of ground to cover, but it just isn’t the same as seeing it in black and white themselves.

I definitely want to continue using the new system next year, and the remote experiments from Twig Science will still have their place as well. I’m going to do in-person experiments in class, of course, but the online versions will be great for students who miss class or need a refresher.

Shake ’em up!

One of the things I was surprised to find better in remote learning was the group work. It had its challenges, certainly. When you go into a breakout room, you can’t see what’s going on with other students to manage the class the way you can when you check on a small group while everyone’s in the same room, for example.

But I did like how easy it was to randomly assign students to small groups. In my classroom they sit four to a table, and that’s their group. In the coming year I may move them into random groups a lot more than I used to.

I also think I’ll change my seating chart much more often. During remote learning, many of my students from more supportive classrooms were more involved than they had been in previous years. They’re great kids with plenty to contribute, but I think they tend to be quiet because they aren’t used to being in a more mainstream classroom and maybe feel a bit intimidated. I definitely want to work harder at drawing their voices out more this year, and I think shuffling everyone around the room is a good way to nudge them in that direction.

Embrace student choice

My biggest challenge providing hands-on science learning to remote students was getting the materials they’d use to explore science into their hands in the first place. The platform I used did a fantastic job of creating remote experiments for them to perform, but students still needed the physical materials that went into the experiment. I see about 450 students every week, so putting together material kits for each one and delivering them was a logistical nightmare.

Eventually, I began having them use materials they found in their homes, and sometimes it led to surprising learning opportunities. In a lesson on irreversible changes for second-graders, students dissolved salt into water and then kept an eye on it over time. Some students had glass cups, and others had plastic. The students with glass cups were finding salt collecting on the surface of their cups, but the students with plastic cups were not, which led to a great discussion that wasn’t even part of the intended lesson.

Giving students the freedom to design their own experiments and find their own path to answering the questions we give them makes that kind of happy accident a lot more likely. It also gives students an opportunity to share their ideas and compare and contrast not just their results, but their processes and thinking along the way. It takes a lot longer, so having them design their own experiments is not very practical when they only come in an hour a week. But letting them use whatever vessel they wanted in a saltwater experiment, for example, didn’t take any time at all. I’ll be looking for every opportunity to give them a little more choice in tweaking their experiments this year.

Last year was hard. It forced us to find new ways to connect with fellow teachers, to connect students to each other, and to make the best use of the resources we found around us. Embracing those new skills helped to mitigate a crisis, and now they can help us to improve learning for our students.

About the Author

Sherrie Starkie is a science specialist at Coyote Creek Elementary School in San Ramon, CA. She can be reached at [email protected].