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Hands-on science: How to make it work remotely

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Like teachers across the country, I felt a little overwhelmed at the sudden shift to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic. As a science specialist, I was particularly worried about how I would keep my students engaged in hands-on learning. Getting a class of elementary school students to perform their own science experiments isolated in their homes sounds more like a fairytale than something that happens in the natural world!

I’m still eager to get back into the classroom, but over the course of remote learning I’ve picked up a few tricks to keep my students engaged. I’ve even found a silver lining or two in these difficult circumstances. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Get creative

My toughest challenge on day one of remote learning was figuring out how to get materials into students’ hands. I decided from the beginning that I would follow the remote lessons of the curriculum I use, Twig Science, as closely as possible. Twig Science has done a phenomenal job of putting together new lessons or adapting existing ones to remote learning. Still, sometimes those lessons call for specific materials.

During the pandemic, I have occasionally put together kits for students to take home, but looking several lessons ahead, compiling a list of materials, purchasing them all and delivering them can be time-consuming and tedious. On top of that, I live an hour from my school. I still do this sometimes, but it’s not not a workable strategy for me to do this long-term.

Instead, I encourage my students to get creative and find materials around their home. An assignment calls for students to build a tower with popsicle sticks? Why not use Legos or Lincoln Logs? I even had students using crayons and markers. Ultimately, it’s just another opportunity to show them that there’s more than one way to solve a problem and that they have the brains to find new solutions.

Lack of uniform materials can even offer up additional learning opportunities. For example, when we worked on reversible and irreversible changes, we made saltwater solutions for students to observe over time. Since they were all using cups they selected from their own cupboards, there was a range of materials, which led to quite the discussion when students with glass vessels noticed salt crystals collecting on their cups and those who used plastic never had any salt accumulation.

Turn cameras on

Early on, I struggled with how to show my students how to perform experiments. Even when a science platform includes video demonstrations, I think it’s important to show students myself as well. At first, I just did it in front of my computer, which didn’t work very well. The school bought us iPad holders, thankfully, and that has made it a lot easier to demonstrate for my students.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned with cameras is that, in some ways, I’m connecting better with students online than in the classroom. Some of my shy students have really been coming out of their shells. I think they just feel more comfortable contributing in class because they feel less exposed. I know this hasn’t been every teacher’s experience, but I have found that my students as a whole are more engaged with online learning than they were in the classroom. I don’t think that would be true if we hadn’t decided as a school to require students to turn their cameras on. 

Collaborate

Of course, experiments and hands-on science activities aren’t just tasks we want students to complete. They’re an opportunity for inquiry and deeper understanding. They’re a tool for asking questions about the natural world.

However, I only have them for 50 minutes at a time, so to make the most of it, I push for interaction instead of just letting it play out.

I do this first by making sure we do everything together in class so that I can stop to ask and answer questions and just keep an eye on how things are going. It’s a lot more fun for all of us to see what everyone else is doing, too.

I’ve also doubled down on small-group work, something I intend to continue doing more of when we return to in-person instruction. Any time a lesson lends itself to small-group work, I put my students into breakout rooms to talk about the lesson, share their screens with each other, and otherwise interact about the content.

Managing small groups is challenging online. I may end up with eight groups and only eight minutes to visit them all. Also, I don’t have the same awareness of the groups I’m not currently interacting with that I would in the classroom. 

But I think it’s worth it to get kids off the script and thinking a little more spontaneously. It means popping in and out of rooms at lightning speed to stir the pot with questions. The payoff is that when they talk to each other about the concepts they’re learning, they think more creatively than when they’re alone. 

Hands-on learning is crucial for science learning and comprehension; I’m grateful that I’ve been able to adapt my teaching to accommodate remote learning, alongside hands-on opportunities, for my students. 

 

Sherrie Starkie is a science specialist at Coyote Creek Elementary School, where she uses Twig Science. She can be reached at sstarkie@srvusd.net.

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