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The Online Teacher

Small-Group Work in the Online Science Classroom

Science Scope—March/April 2021 (Volume 44, Issue 4)

By Denise Wright

Small-Group Work in the Online Science Classroom

Small-group instruction is a hallmark of science instruction and should be part of every online science classroom. There are numerous benefits of small-group instruction, including:

  • personalizing instruction: small groups allow for teachers to work more closely with students
  • providing feedback: small groups allow teachers to monitor students more closely, which results in more individualized feedback
  • reteaching: small-group instruction provides the opportunity for teachers to assist struggling students
  • building confidence through collaboration: small-group instruction provides the opportunity for teamwork and everyone is working toward achieving the same goal (Van Zant and Volpe 2018).

But how can we use technology as a tool to foster small-group instruction? In this article, I provide some practical tips by discussing how I incorporated an authentic experiment involving seeds from space!

The Tomatosphere project

More than 3 million students across the United States and Canada have participated in the Tomatosphere project, which is supported by the First the Seed Foundation. Each year, the foundation sends 20 packages of tomato seeds to registered schools (teachers can register online at First the Seed Foundation; see Online Resources; see also Supplemental Resources). In the Tomatosphere project, half of the packages contain seeds that have been sent into space and the other package contains “control” seeds, which have been kept here on Earth. The goal of the Tomatosphere project is for students to learn how to conduct a scientific experiment and to compare the germination rates of the two groups of seeds by observing the amount of time it takes for the seeds to germinate. According to the Tomatosphere project website, teachers and students do not know which of the two packages are the “space” seeds and which are control seeds until the germination process is complete and results have been submitted.

In September, I received my tomato seed packages (labeled P and N). My goals for having students participate in this project were for them to work collaboratively, to gain a further understanding of scientific experimentation, and to practice their public speaking skills by sharing their scientific results. This scientific inquiry experiment would be easier to complete in the face-to-face classroom, but any lesson with thought, planning, and modifications can be done in the online classroom too!

I introduced the project during a synchronous meeting by playing a short video called “Do Tomato Seeds Grow Differently If They’ve Been In Space?” (see Online Resources). After being introduced to the Tomatosphere project, students were asked to develop at least three scientific questions based on the experiment (this was done offline). They would later meet with their small groups to discuss their questions about the Tomatosphere project.

Next, I posted a link to a Google form in the chat area for students to complete to determine if they were interested in the lead role of “space farmer” (see Tomatosphere project sign-up form in Supplemental Resources). The space farmer would receive two packages of seeds with approximately 12 of each seed type mailed to their home; it would be their job to plant the seeds in separate pots; label them; ensure the pots received the same amount of sunlight, water, and soil; and discuss and show on camera the progress of germination and plant growth. I also participated in the project so that I could share my excitement, model, discuss, and show my results. By growing my own seeds, I was also able to supply data for any group whose seeds failed to germinate. In addition, students were also able to compare my data to their own.

I had six students volunteer to be space farmers and designated them as the group leaders. In my class of 30 students, there were six groups that each contained five students (I found limiting the number of groups to six helped me to keep track of conversations in the breakout rooms). If you are running multiple sections of a science class, consider your class sizes and the number of breakout rooms you can personally manage. When assigning students to groups, I used information about my students that I was able to access from our learning management system (students being classified as ESOL, Gifted, 504, and having an IEP). Because I wanted students to work collaboratively and to assist each other, I created groups with this in mind. For example, I placed a student who was learning English with another student who was bilingual, so the bilingual student could translate for the student learning English, as necessary. Another way to group students is to do so according to student needs so that the teacher can either work on specific skills with some students or provide enrichment to other students (Meader 2019).

There were a number of tasks completed in preparation for group discussions. These tasks—organizing meeting spaces for groups, defining group member roles, and developing group norms—were done prior to introducing the project and were key to the project’s success. First, I created a Google Jamboard with the name of each space farmer and their group members listed. Each group was then assigned a Google Jamboard where the small group would post, discuss, and collaborate each week. The Jamboard also served as a resource for any absent students, who were expected to access the URL of the group Google Jamboard to determine what they had missed (I held them accountable by requiring them to turn in a small paragraph noting any new information that was posted on the Jamboard).

Next, I defined the group member roles. When students are broken into small groups for breakout rooms, it is important that each person is assigned a specific task. This causes students to take ownership in their group and facilitates students working together when they meet in their breakout group. For this project, the roles included space farmer, recorder, reporter, data recorder, and time manager. The space farmer volunteered to grow the tomatoes, the reporter guided the group with the teacher-created questions, the time manager made sure the group worked at a steady pace, and the data recorder wrote down the number of germinated plants on the data table. Each time the small group met, students took on the next role that was written on the list of roles I provided to them (with the exception of the space farmer). This allowed the students to experience all the roles when completing the project, including participating in the data recording and in other important aspects of their scientific research.

Finally, before students were sent to their online breakout rooms, the students and I developed group norms. Our group norms included things such as staying on task, being respectful to each other, and allowing everyone to speak. This helped foster relevant and appropriate discussions and created a place where everyone was able to contribute (Brown 2020).

After the group norms were established, students moved into their group breakout rooms and were given eight minutes to post and discuss the questions that they had developed previously. I have found that limiting students to a specific amount of time when completing a task helps students to be more focused and to stay on task. As discussions were occurring, I visited the breakout rooms and listened in the background. During this time, I did have brief interactions with the students, during which I acknowledged their thoughts and ideas. My presence sent the message to students that I was available to assist and was monitoring the group’s progress (my presence also helped to keep them on task). It was exciting to hear the students communicating with each other. Some of the questions were:

  • How does being in space impact the seeds?
  • How long were the seeds in space?
  • Will the tomatoes grow sideways?
  • Will the seeds being in space have any impact at all?
  • Will the tomato plants now be smaller?
  • Why did they select tomato seeds to take into space?

Once the small groups had recorded their questions on their group’s Google Jamboard, we came back together as an entire class to discuss their questions. Interestingly, the groups had very similar questions. These questions were posted on a main Jamboard. Each week that we met for the Tomatosphere project, we reviewed our initial scientific questions to determine if we could possibly answer them and continued to modify the question board throughout the project. The small-group data and the question process throughout the project helped the students to make a determination as to which seeds were the “space” seeds.

Small-group instruction

The next live session for the Tomatosphere project occurred during the following week. I could tell when we met that the space farmers were excited because the seedlings were sprouting! Students reported to their appropriate breakout rooms and were given 10 minutes to complete their data collection. Each space farmer showed the seedlings to their group while the recorder placed the date, the number of germinated seeds, the temperature when they were collecting data, and the time on their shared document (see the Tomatosphere data sheet exemplar in Online Resources). I popped into each breakout room briefly while the students were working and witnessed students helping one another and abiding by the group norms we had established.

When we met back as a whole group, I reviewed dependent and independent variables and assigned students to either read or listen to the Newsela article “Variables In Your Science Project” that reviewed this topic (see Online Resources). I like using Newsela as a resource because it can be differentiated for Lexile reading level and allows students the option of highlighting or selecting the article to be read aloud. The article “Variables In Your Science Project” must be accessed using a Newsela subscription, although the site does have a free version where many articles can be accessed to meet the different reading levels of your students. In our next breakout session, I had students answer the following prompts in their small groups:

  • Identify the independent and dependent variables in the Tomatosphere experiment.
  • What are the requirements for an excellent scientific experiment?
  • How many of your seeds have germinated? Compare Groups P and N.

As I popped into the breakout rooms, I noticed that some students had difficulty determining the difference between independent and dependent variables. I also noted that some of my ESOL students were more quiet than normal, which could mean that they were struggling with the concept of variables. I stayed a bit longer with those groups having difficulties and guided them to the correct answers. When we came back together as an entire class, I gave further examples of other types of scientific experiments and had students identify the independent and dependent variables. Another way to provide instruction for struggling students is to work with them in a small group while the other students work on a different assigned task.

Creating group presentations

During the next live session, students were asked to use a digital tool of their choice, such as Google slides/docs, Jamboard, and Wakelet, to record observations, predictions, and data. Students were given 20 minutes in the breakout rooms to work with their team members to create a presentation that included a graph comparing the number of P germinated versus N germinated seeds, pictures, and the prediction of which group (N or P) was on the space station. They were also asked to provide their reasoning for why they agreed as a group on this prediction. Each person in the group was responsible for adding one part to their main slide. To help ensure that all students did their part, I had each student complete a peer evaluation on a Google form indicating whether each of their peers did their part. That way, if one of the students did not complete their part of the final presentation, the entire group was not penalized. Student presentations were assessed with a rubric, and each presentation had to include pictures of the tomato plants, a bar graph comparing the number of P versus N germinated seeds, a prediction of which seeds they hypothesized had been on the International Space Station, and evidence for their reasoning (see Supplemental Materials for rubric).

Student groups had to present their Google slide to the entire class. As the groups spoke, they showed the data table and graph they had created comparing the P seeds and N seeds. They discussed the independent variable, which was the effect of the space environment on the growth of tomato seeds. Throughout the project, students said they were able to control the amount of sunlight, water, and type of soil for each seed type; several groups also noted that more N seeds germinated than P seeds. As each group presented, I asked a student to record the germination totals reported by each student group. The results? Ninety-two out of 100 N seeds germinated, and only 56 out of 100 P seeds germinated. All groups said that based on this data, they believed the seeds from Group P were on the space station. They discussed the ideas that the seeds could have received radiation from the sun, that there was no atmosphere to protect the seed, and that the “air/gases” may be different on the International Space Station than on Earth, which could cause fewer seeds to germinate.

Summing it up

Group work in the online science classroom can be challenging. Thoughtfully organizing discussion boards and breakout rooms ahead of time, assigning group member roles, and creating classroom norms can all contribute to a successful group experience. Providing specific tasks that must be completed within a short time frame will help keep students focused and on task. In addition, it is crucial to monitor breakout rooms so that you can provide assistance to groups as needed. If students are struggling with a concept, create a small breakout room to work with those students and provide your other students with an alternative assignment. When assessing a group presentation, it is helpful to ensure that each student has an assigned task and that you receive input regarding peer performance.

So which group of seeds—N or P—were on the International Space Station? After submitting our results to the Tomatosphere website, I received an email from the First the Seed Foundation but waited until our next live class meeting to open it. My students were very excited to learn whether their hypothesis was correct or not! I encourage you to bring this investigation to your online classroom; your students will enjoy this “out of this world” experiment!

Figure 1
Student space farmer with her tomato seeds at home.

Student space farmer with her tomato seeds at home. Photo by Anastasia Stephens.

Online Resources

Do Tomato Seeds Grow Differently If They’ve Been In Space? (video)—

Better Seed, Better Life video—

First Seed Foundation—

Sign-up for space farmer—

Tomatosphere curriculum—

Tomatosphere data sheet—


Supplemental Materials

Rubric for student presentations

Tomatosphere project sign-up form

Denise Wright ( is a middle school STEM Educator at Horry County Schools located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Her experience includes teaching in an online setting. You may contact her on twitter: @DenisecWright or at with any questions.


Brown, J. 2020. 5 best practices for managing breakout rooms. EdTech Magazine.

Meader, D. 2019. Small group instruction. ThoughtCo.

Van Zant, S., and N. Volpe. 2018. Small group instruction: How to make it effective.

Biology Distance Learning Instructional Materials Teaching Strategies Technology

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