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Current Science Classroom

Remote Learning: Problem or Opportunity?

The Science Teacher—July/August 2020 (Volume 87, Issue 9)

By Chris Anderson

How do you prepare to teach a class that doesn’t meet in person? Science teachers know that nothing—and I mean nothing—takes the place of in-person labs. Many of us are familiar with virtual activities and simulations such as PhET and Gizmos. But labs are the heart of a science classroom, and the idea of going into a school year without students collecting and analyzing experimental data is a tough pill to swallow. 

This is just one challenge science teachers are now grappling with as remote learning has become our “new normal.” There are no quick answers. The barriers to learning are not insignificant, compounded by the uncertainty of what the school year will look like, how long it will be like this, and risks to our health. 

But what if we turned the problems of remote learning into opportunities? We have, in effect, a blank canvas to reimagine the way we teach science. This isn't without its stressors; freedom can be overwhelming. Yet there’s no denying that educators have the once-in-a-career opportunity to innovate in a low-risk, high-reward environment. And isn’t testing, analyzing results, and learning how things work the essence of science? 

The things we’ve relied on year in and year out probably won’t work anymore. Worksheets are somehow more boring to do remotely than they are in class, and assigning articles or videos with “did you pay attention to this?” assessments neither foster a student’s conceptual understanding of science nor push them to think critically. We have the impetus for novelty. We must raise the bar to do something truly enriching for our students.

So what can we do? Observation is one of the most important skills we teach children and there are plenty of tools at your disposal. Take your kids around the world with documentaries, Google Earth, or National Geographic. Expose them to ecosystems and cultures they would have never seen under normal school conditions. Take pictures of things you find in the natural world and post them on your class website or social media accounts and ask students what they notice and what they wonder. This gives kids a chance to share their ideas without the pressure of giving a correct answer. 

Observation is just the first step in fostering critical thinking; we need to build strong questioning and discussion skills in students as well. Classroom blogs can be a great way to foster a rich conversation as well as helping kids hone their writing skills. The rules of engagement are crucial, but it can build classroom culture with rich, authentic discussions. Primary teacher Kathleen Morris from Australia shares wonderful ideas on implementing classroom blogs and teaching students digital literacy. These can be applied to a high school science classroom where questioning is vital to helping students understand difficult concepts. 

And there’s no lack of citizen science opportunities for your students to take part in real scientific studies from the comfort of their own home! iNaturalist is a fantastic and free resource that allows individuals to upload photos of wildlife or local habitats from a phone to a database that scientists use to biodiversity and ecosystem health. See the Citizen Science column in the May issue of The Science Teacher for more details.

We should also ask how we can create an environment for our students to experiment creatively as well. Have your kids flex their imagination with creative writing assignments, TikToks, or other videos. You could prompt them to act as a historical scientist, film it on their phones, and upload it to your class site. One of the best projects any of my students did was a movie in which the ghost of Alfred Wegener guided Harry Hess towards his discovery of how tectonic plates moved. You could have students write song parodies or try their hand at sketch writing to show their mastery of a concept. Turn your classroom into a virtual Saturday Night Live! 

I don’t want to downplay the challenges we are facing. No simulation or discussion board replaces a face-to-face lesson with a great teacher. And this crisis has laid bare issues educators across the country have been raising for years. The most important thing is that our students are healthy and safe when they do come back to school. 

Tthe scarcity of classroom time should force us to rethink how we spend the precious moments with students. And of course, share your ideas with your colleagues! Who knows what kind of inspiration you’ll provide or receive? At the very least, we can work to change the culture of teaching to one that’s more open, flexible, and creative, both for students and teachers. We shouldn’t use our lack of contact with our kids to be our crutch—instead, let’s see what we and they can do. 


Chris Anderson ( is Explorer-in-Chief, Science Over EverythingExecutive Producer and Host, Science Around Cincy; and a National Geographic Certified Educator. @TheScienceJedi

Instructional Materials Pedagogy Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies High School

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