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Meeting the Challenges of Remote Learning

By Debra Shapiro

Meeting the Challenges of Remote Learning

One of Denise Webb's students at Coal Mountain Elementary School in Cumming, Georgia, does an egg drop activity at home.

When teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) remotely, “we’re in unchartered waters and doing the best we can,” acknowledges Erik Murray, who teaches sixth-grade science and engineering at Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington, Massachusetts. “In times like this, it’s okay to focus on the fun part [of STEM]. No one learns when they’re stressed out. The learning will come later.” 

Murray has created “simple choice and activity boards [graphic organizers that allow students to choose different ways to learn about a particular concept] for students to explore science at home, independently or with their family. Students will do an experiment or activity, and then do a simple journal entry about what they discovered while doing it.” He based these activities on ones he typically uses during testing days or at the end of the school year, as well as on his experiences teaching informal science at a museum. 

“My philosophy is that science and engineering is all around us; we just need to know where to look,” Murray maintains. For example, his STEM at Home Outside Bingo Board features activities like “Look for the Big Dipper in the night sky. See if you can locate all eight stars that make it up.” Another board contains activities to do with cardboard. His choice boards are set up like Bingo boards, and each contain 25 science, engineering, and English Language Arts activities for students to select from.

Students enjoyed the Bingo format. “Some of them tried to fill out the whole chart,” he reports, adding, “We had several Bingos!” Students sent him photos and videos of their work.

Murray posted his choice boards on Twitter at He has received positive feedback from other teachers worldwide who have used them, and some have even been translated into different languages. He says he plans to edit some of the boards “to be more content-specific,” such as a creating a board devoted to activities related to sound waves.

“I had a great response from the at-home STEM projects,” reports Denise Webb, Discovery Lab Teacher at Coal Mountain Elementary School in Cumming, Georgia. She says she chose activities for grades K–5 that combined science and engineering and were based on state standards and “mirrored the NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards]…I made sure to choose websites that took [students] right to an explanation of how to do the activities, and I made sure to provide clear explanations.”

Since she assigned the activities in the spring, “parents have gotten comfortable asking students questions [related to the activities] and not giving them the answers,” Webb relates. “Some activities didn’t work, but I was happy to see [students and families asking questions like] ‘What can we do differently?’ The students were more positive when dealing with failure. They came up with innovative ways to try again or used different materials. That was the whole purpose: trying different things and questioning the world around them.” 

Webb says her choice board was the most popular because it “provided students and families the ability to choose activities that they had materials for at home. They enjoyed having freedom of choice.” 

She notes that the activities will be available all summer for students who weren’t able to do them during the spring or for those who want to continue them or try other ones. “I like to leave them with a question to think about, a challenge to take to the next level.”

Using Technology

“I’ve been doing 20- to 30-minute Zoom sessions with my K–5 students, followed by two asynchronous activities on Seesaw,” says Dee Cobia, Lower School science specialist at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, California. “Sometimes the Seesaw activities are responses to demos students saw me do on a video, like modeling erosion on a stream table tray or doing a time-lapse of the life cycle of the class butterflies. Other activities are hands-on activities that are fast and simple, using materials found at home,” she explains, noting that she adapted some activities from labs in Full Option Science System (FOSS) and researched others on YouTube.

“I didn’t do hands-on experiences every session because of the materials burden it would place on parents,” Cobia adds. 

“The main purpose of the hands-on activities was to get students working with real-world materials offline. Some activities were inquiry-based, some to build observation skills, some to evaluate models, and some just for engagement with the content,” Cobia notes. She organized activities into six categories: 

•    Learn how to make detailed, objective observations. (Get a sample of soil from your backyard and make three observations about it, for example.)
•    Observe objects/phenomena over time. (Make an insect house for pollinators.)
•    Do an investigation that answers a scientific question. (Compare the rate of evaporation in containers of differing heights and widths. Does the width of the opening influence evaporation rate?)
•    Learn about a phenomenon by constructing or inventing a device. (Build a pulley out of found materials at home.)
•    Model a phenomenon, then evaluate the model. (Model abrasion by shaking pieces of sidewalk chalk with salt in a jar.)
•    Take advantage of the technology you use in distance learning. (Go on an insect, rock, flower, motor, simple machine, or animal photo hunt with your iPad, then post [what you found] on Seesaw.)

Some of the activities, such as designing Rube Goldberg machines, “ended up going better than they would have in school,” Cobia reports. Typically at the end of class, students would have to dismantle their machines, but this wasn’t necessary at home. “Students had their families film them,” she adds.

With other activities, Cobia faced challenges. “Some students’ parents had few supplies, so I had to have creative alternatives,” she explains. “If a student didn’t have chalk, they could use a broken cookie or cracker instead, for example. Popcorn and seeds were substituted for the beans you would put in the ‘bean in a bag’ activity.”

While “physics and biology activities went over well,” she says she found it hard to teach about rocks online. “The students were a little bored because they couldn’t use microscopes” to really examine the rocks, she maintains.

And the Zoom technology imposed time limits on online discussions, so they were less detailed. Cobia adds that it was harder to correct students’ misconceptions on Seesaw. However, she noticed that more students participated in class discussions online than was typical in class, “where we were only hearing from a few students.”

In addition, “the parents of my younger students didn’t know the technology—for example, how to upload material to Seesaw—so we told them to e-mail us. We had to track [students’ work] in different places besides Seesaw,” Cobia reports. “If anyone needed help, at 2:30 they could get one-on-one help on Zoom,” she adds.

“Most activities were designed to take a few minutes to set up and do, but they created a sense of ownership and pride for students. Many students wanted time to share their work during Zoom sessions. We often had kids running downstairs to get their kite, jar of soil, or rock to share with classmates,” Cobia recalls. “We posted all their photos and videos on Seesaw so they could see all of their classmates’ work.”

Incorporating NGSS

Randy Hohf, a science teacher at Whitefish Middle School in Whitefish, Montana, also incorporated the NGSS in his remote learning activities. “For my seventh-grade life science [class], we gave them a variety of choices from Exploratorium Science Snacks. They worked well,” he relates. After choosing one of seven activities—such as Skin Shield, Photosynthetic Floatation, and Seed Germinator—students had to submit a lab report that included a prediction, a claim, evidence, reasoning, and a rewritten claim, and “they had to choose one science and engineering practice and one crosscutting concept and explain how they used the practice and how the crosscutting concept related to what they did,” he explains.

For example, Skin Shield offered an opportunity to develop and use a model: Students chose a fruit, such as a tomato, and poked holes in one tomato and left the other intact. They observed what happened to the two tomatoes after a week. “It’s a model of what your skin does to protect you [from pathogens],” observes Hohf. 

Students “didn’t have to write a formal paragraph; we just gave them a form to complete that had boxes for each item,” Hohf notes. The students also had to describe the experimental design and “put the data in a table or graph,” he adds.

“This worked really well. I will use it when we’re back in school,” he concludes.

Low-Tech Engineering

“I have been using low-tech engineering with paper activities during this period of remote learning. I run an afterschool program and have had great success so far with virtual lessons that include hands-on activities [using] only paper, tape, and scissors because I know kids have these supplies. We have been able to cover an amazing range of topics, from bird-wing design to life on the International Space Station (ISS), and much more. We have created about a dozen lessons so far,” says Godwyn Morris, director of Dazzling Discoveries, a STEM education center in New York City. 

“We created an alphabet of 3-D geometric shapes, such as cylinders, cones and prisms, and instructions about how to make them with paper,” Morris explains. These shapes can be used to build structures, habitats, chain reactions and a wide range of models, including one of the ISS. She says she has compiled all this into instruction packets that make it easy for students and teachers to follow.

The shapes can help students “understand the fundamentals of engineering principles,” contends Morris. Students can create projects that align with science and engineering curricula. Examples include simple machines and force and motion and making and testing catapults. “Several schools had students doing marble runs. They used our engineering with paper instructions to make entire structures, including ramps and curves,” she recalls. “One class had students design and build model elevators. Students can make mechanisms, axles, and birds with flappable wings, all with just paper and tape.” 

“We want to make sure teachers can teach hands-on even when they don’t have access to all of the manipulatives in the classroom,” says Morris. “Teachers can teach across all content areas…It fills the gap of supplies” that teachers are experiencing due to the pandemic, she notes. 

The activities are designed so that printers aren’t needed. “You can look at the shapes on the computer screen and follow the steps to make them. They’re all line drawings,” Morris explains. All the materials are also downloadable and printable. 

Teachers can access two free sample projects here.


Engineering General Science News STEM Teaching Strategies Technology Middle School Elementary

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