By Debra Shapiro
Students in Denise Webb’s STEM classes at Coal Mountain Elementary School in Cumming, Georgia, do distance learning projects such as designing a marble maze. During the pandemic, students often are working with their parents.
Editor’s Note: In this article, we examine how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way science education is taught, how teachers are working with parents, and how one creative science teacher helped bring much-needed supplies to first responders.
The COVID-19 pandemic “[has] everyone becoming new learners,…and learning in these circumstances is hard,” contends 2019–2020 NSTA President Elect Elizabeth Allan, a biology professor and coordinator of the Secondary Science Education program at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Oklahoma. The pandemic has had “a powerful impact on the future, on how to run classrooms,” for classroom veterans, preservice teachers, and higher education faculty, she observes.
Preservice teachers “in an education program are found along a spectrum of experiences and knowledge, often [related to] what year they are in. For those just beginning in their program, their understanding of schools and teaching is often limited to their own experiences. Because these experiences are so deeply embedded, they are expressed in their view of classrooms and teachers,” Allan relates. “During a time of significant disruption, these new preservice teachers are given the chance to see pedagogical challenges in a way that others [who] came before did not.”
She continues, “For the first time, in real time, social and economic inequities are played out as [preservice teachers] observe from the virtual classroom. Their world views and deeply held beliefs are challenged by the reality they find students and teachers living day to day. In fact, they may find themselves experiencing learning and equity challenges that in a normal world, were mitigated by having internet at schools, libraries, [and other typical locations]. Even food insecurity is enhanced for preservice teachers (ramen noodles still being the "go to" for college students), just as it is for some of their students. They are truly seeing into their students’ worlds.
“For preservice teachers who are now student teaching, it is a chance to really step back and think about learning in a fundamentally different way under circumstances [in which] learning, real student learning, is visible. No longer can their students blend in so as to not be noticed. Other distractions in classrooms are not there. No one is interrupting over the intercom, and no one has to raise their hand to go to the bathroom. Papers aren’t passed back, disruptions can be muted, and now there are just students,” Allan relates. In addition, these preservice teachers “are also taking courses of their own online and adjusting to that as well.
“Working with preservice teachers in this period of disruption means listening and supporting, but it’s also a time to challenge them to reflect critically about what they are experiencing,” Allan maintains. “They have the opportunity to see students as embedded within culture and society. Seeing [pre]K–12 students, and critically considering how that affects student learning, may be the very best thing we can do to prepare them to teach in whatever schools look like when they step out as teachers.”
For teachers accustomed to being in the classroom, “doing science online is more challenging [because] some sciences require equipment [not commonly found] at home, especially for high school students,” Allan notes. Teachers may have “small children at home, or may have relatives who [have been exposed to COVID-19], are ill, or at high risk…They may have technology issues [such as] sharing computers with their kids, scheduling time [for using them],...or they may not have internet access or other [technology-related] resources.” Often preservice teachers and high school and college students can be a help to experienced teachers who suddenly must master Slack, Zoom, and other new programs, she points out.
Not being able to be there for students and having to teach them online has affected many teachers. “We don’t prepare any teacher for this, except in some [fortunate] school systems that require at least one online class,” Allan asserts. And in some districts, not all students have access to technology. “Inequity in families must be ameliorated before this could be a standard,” she contends.
One silver lining to the pandemic, says Allan, is that “people get to see into classrooms in ways they didn’t before, and parents are involved. [Teachers] are making [science teaching] visible to the public. We will have the chance to look back at this window opening to show what teachers do to help students learn.”
STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) involves “phenomena and wondering,” notes Allan. She suggests teachers “get students actively involved in phenomena” they can explore during their daily experiences. “Pick a big idea that students can explore, and give them a choice of high-tech and low-tech activities” so all students can be engaged, she urges. “Learning doesn’t have to occur only online. Students can go outside and make videos [of phenomena].”
Resources like NSTA’s Daily Dos can “engage students, parents, and siblings in high-quality science content,” she observes. With education companies and associations like NSTA providing resources teachers can use during this challenging time, Allan is confident that learning will continue. “Teachers have always risen to the challenge; this is one more example of that,” she concludes.
“I am fortunate that I am in a district that already had strong online learning in place. Parents and students were trained in how to use online learning for inclement weather days. However, this is still a challenge and learning curve with this extended time at home,” says Denise Webb, Discovery Lab Teacher at Coal Mountain Elementary School in Cumming, Georgia.
“I am a STEM and specials teacher and see all the students in our K–5 school,” Webb continues. “I found that I had to work with parents on how to ask questions [to help] their children be successful with their science and engineering activities. It is important for both teachers and parents to understand that reading science is not science, that is the ELA [English language arts] part of the curriculum. Science is action: investigating, questioning, observing, sometimes getting messy!”
Webb says she had to give parents “quick training in science talk,” for example. “I try to give them simple question stems, like ‘Why do you think that…?’ or ‘What more can you tell me…?’” She contends that parents “have gotten away from having conversations with students [because] students are looking at their devices. We have to build that back in. Listening is important: ‘This is what I hear you saying…’”
She finds that parents have to learn how to ask questions and allow wait time for students to answer them, and they must learn to ask open-ended questions, such as “What evidence do you have?” “I give parents the words to say, but [encourage] them not to give students the answers,” she explains.
In addition, “I tell them they don’t have to have all the answers; just focus on discovery. It takes the anxiety off parents,” she maintains, but admits that “trying to do this in bite-sized chunks with parents is challenging.” Webb chooses STEM activities that families can do together. “Families are excited to do STEM together. This is the positive side: It’s a platform for families to have these talks. Parents are hungry for it,” she observes.
She finds that open-ended activities like engineering design challenges are easier for parents to do and “hook the whole family. I give them a choice [of challenges. They can] make a marble maze using what they have at home; they can use straws and LEGOs.” Or they can create a Rube Goldberg machine, “a complicated device to do a simple task, like getting a cup into a sink. Lots of families sent me videos of this. I could hear from cheers in the videos that the whole family was engaged,” she recalls.
Webb has made short videos and shared them with students. “I made one on the bees at my house. It shows students that science is everywhere, not just in the classroom,” she asserts. She also encourages students to “grow things using what they have at home, such as growing new plants from the bottom of [a head of] lettuce or a celery stalk, or planting some dried beans in baggies with a wet paper towel and hanging them in a window.”
All of this wouldn’t have been possible for Webb and her colleagues without her principal’s support, she maintains. “Our principal [gave] us permission to be creative to help students meet Georgia standards. It has encouraged teachers to integrate engaging science activities into their lessons.”
Vanessa Logan Wentzloff, physics teacher at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan, is teaching remotely and integrating Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices (SEPs). In a post from her blog, @outoftheboxstem, she offers some suggestions for doing this. “Data interpretation is one of the easiest NGSS SEPs to practice right now. Students are seeing data everywhere and need to practice interpret[ing] it to be scientifically literate citizens,” she writes. “If students perform a lab…[they] can continue by creating data tables, graphs, [and] analyzing and identifying sources of error. If kids are watching a lab that you are performing, they can take down data during the lab, or you can give them the data afterward.”
She continues, “If you want to focus on data interpretation in your subject area, find an authentic and current data set for students to look at. Think about current COVD19 data sets, environmental studies, and current research that is still being published. Data sets are more than graphs and data tables; they are also images and diagrams.”
Regarding engaging in argument from evidence, Wentzloff writes, “CERs, Claim Evidence Reasoning, are one of the cornerstones of NGSS…All kids can do CERs by looking at a phenomenon, a data set, or experiment. This is a more authentic assessment, rather than a test or quiz, which is extremely stressful for students during this time. Have kids look at a new phenomenon or data set and make a conclusion. For data, they can also practice using equations.
“Practice CER skills by giving a claim and hav[ing] students identify evidence. Skip the reasoning for now, and focus on evidence. Work on your kids looking at CERs for current information, given a question for their claim. For instance, does social distancing work to prevent the spread of COVID-19? I recommend giving them sources so they can interpret [it] themselves. This is a great chance to collaborate with your English teachers, who also use CERs.”
Read more of Wentzloff ’s suggestions here.
“I am printing 400 face shield headbands, 400 surgical mask band adjusters, and 50 N95 Facsimile face masks, and I have other contacts sewing cloth masks with pockets for HEPA [High Efficiency Particulate Air] filters to be inserted. I am working with a printing group here on O‘ahu to ‘mass produce’ PPE [personal protective equipment] for health care providers. I am currently working with staff at [the Queen’s Medical Center West O‘ahu], and my spouse is working to provide 25 cloth masks to Kaiser [Permanente Moanalua Medical Center],” reports NSTA District XVI Director Richard Jones, associate professor of science education at University of Hawai‘i (UH)–West O‘ahu.
“My lab is being run through [two of] my VETS Program (Veterans Empowered Through STEM) interns, [undergraduates] who are coming in two days a week to keep the printers working. I also have my son, a materials engineer in Colorado, working via virtual network to modify designs as needed,” explains Jones, who is VETS’ program director. Chantal Dewall, VETS Program assistant director, is also working on the project.
In 2018, UH–West O‘ahu received a $638,100 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to create a program for veterans interested in STEM careers and education. With the funds, Jones created VETS, and added 3-D printers to the VETS Lab. Of the lab’s approximately 14 printers, 10 are actively printing the face masks and two different kinds of headbands.
“Keeping the printers running is a full-time job,” Jones maintains. His VETS interns excel at troubleshooting any problems that arise with hardware and software, which is the focus of their internship. They also are taking classes online, he adds. The project also supports NGSS science and engineering practices “because we have had to [create a prototype] and modify the design, Jones contends.
It’s easy for Jones, Dewall, and the two interns to practice social distancing. “The lab space is big; there are six-foot buffer zones around the printers and desks…We [also] have a staggered schedule for everyone. We’re really careful to not be on top of one another,” he explains.
“We have the ability within STEM to help out, and that’s what we’re doing,” Jones asserts. Teachers interested in helping health care workers “might be able to take home a [3-D] printer from their school. Even a small printer can help,” he suggests.