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Three Must-Haves for Remote Science Learning

By Mike Marvel

Posted on 2021-02-04

“My students need to see things happen.”
“I can’t just send them to virtual simulations; they need to do labs.”
“I want my students to be able to see someone read the liquid level off of a burette.”

These are just a few of the comments and concerns teachers have expressed as they grapple with how to engage students in the scientific discovery process while teaching remotely. Removing the ability to teach in-person because of COVID-19 certainly provides a unique set of challenges for teachers and students alike. However, quality and engaging science and STEM instruction is still possible.

So how can teachers and students “do” science when not physically in a lab? The three must-haves for effective remote science learning are these:

Have Access to Real Data. Authentic data helps students construct arguments and understand the world around them. Fortunately, there are ways to provide this data even if students aren’t able to collect it themselves during an in-lab investigation. By using video labs, teachers can show investigations being conducted, allowing students to see the scientific process happening and understand how the data are captured before they receive the actual data files for their own analysis. 

In addition to providing data electronically, having print files of data to send to students is also important. This helps ensure all students can engage in meaningful remote scientific learning, regardless of their broadband access. 

Use Science Prompts. Data is only as valuable as the prompts that accompany it. Therefore, pairing real data with intentionally-designed prompts that engage students and ensure their ability to do science practices—rather than having to interrogate their content knowledge—is key. Science prompts help students display their understanding; demonstrate their comprehension of the scientific process; form hypotheses; engage in collaborative, data-driven conversations; and more, based on the specific lessons and concepts being taught. 

Some online learning solutions, such as Flinn Scientific’s Next Generation Science Standards–supported Science2Go, allow teachers to use suggested prompts or customize their own prompts to meet the specific learning objectives of a given lesson. This provides educators needed flexibility while teaching, which is especially important during remote learning.

Provide Hands-On Activities. While students aren’t able to conduct the same labs as they would in class because of safety and logistical reasons, it is still imperative for teachers to try to engage them in hands-on learning whenever possible. As research shows, hands-on learning enhances the science learning experience for students in many ways, including providing neurological benefits.

Hands-on learning activities that can be incorporated include conducting simple demonstrations or experiments using common household items. For example, teachers can reinforce chromatography concepts simply by using a few hard-shelled candy–coated pieces of chocolate, a bowl of water, and a paper towel. After soaking the candy and towel in the water, students can discuss why certain dye colors moved further up the towel than others. 

To help incorporate more hands-on learning during remote teaching, educators should look for programs that include at-home extensions with suggested ideas and activities. Linking such activities with each lab will help students synthesize data in more meaningful ways. 

Despite being challenging and certainly a departure from the usual for many, remote science teaching can still be engaging and effective for students. Using these three best practices and a bit of creativity, teachers can continue to immerse students in the learning process while helping them master important scientific concepts.  

Kontra, C., D.J. Lyons, S.M. Fischer, and S.L. Beilock. 2015. Physical experience enhances science learning. Psychological Science 26 (6): 737–749.

Mike Marvel is lead scientist and manager of product development for Flinn Scientific, a scientific equipment supplier for education in Batavia, Illinois.

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