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.
- By Sherrie Starkie
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.
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
using remote tools where they make sense
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Starkie is a science specialist at Coyote Creek Elementary School in
San Ramon, CA. She can be reached at [email protected].