Science Education during a Pandemic: What Can we do to Engage our Students?

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I am a former veteran science teacher who now works as a science coach. Science education, to me, means providing kids with experiences that allow them to find out “how and why” the natural world functions the way it does. It also means being able to have fun by investigating “new things.” It embodies the thrill of discovering the questions and answers to problems on their own. And yet, in the present pandemic climate, remote learning poses some challenges for science educators. A substantial amount of time might be dedicated to distance learning. How will our students perform hands-on experimentation? What opportunities will they have to explore, create, and observe? After thinking about this dilemma, doing a little research and communicating with some wonderful teachers, I was able to form a compilation of the following ideas.

Students might enjoy performing experiments at home with very common household materials to answer questions such as: Which solutions might clean copper pennies the best? Ordinary ingredients such as vinegar, water, salt water, hot sauce, ketchup and lemon juice could be tested. Both lemon juice and hot sauce actually work pretty well. Details for this experiment can be found here.  What happens when de-shelled eggs (or naked eggs) are placed in different fluids? Students would be able to see how the eggs would grow or shrink. What happens when a small amount of vinegar is added to warm milk? By dropping the pH of milk, students can observe the curdling effect, which is one of the first steps in creating cheese. The Exploratorium, a San Francisco-based museum, offers a plethora of science snacks, by subject area, which are simple hands-on activities that require inexpensive and common materials to teach kids about natural phenomena. 

Even in urban environments, students could learn about their own ecosystems through simple observation by doing a “backyard ecology project.”  Students could observe the same patch of land over time, either in their own backyard or near their home, and draw/record their results. What changes occur and why? Students owning cell phones could take photos of what they see in their local environments and classify organisms into various buckets, such as producer, primary consumer, decomposer, or vertebrate (mammal, reptile, amphibian, fish), or various categories of invertebrates. There is also a free app, put out by iNaturalist, called “Seek.” When a cell phone camera is placed over the specimen (which could either be an animal or plant), it can be identified into its genus and species, enabling students to identify “mystery” organisms.

Common indoor and outdoor plants are good candidates for exploratory study. A weed can be dissected into its component plant parts, of roots, stems, leaves and flowers.  Vegetative propagation methods can be interesting as well: students can try taking small cuttings from various plants and putting them in water to see if roots develop. Or, they might experiment with taking the leaves of indoor plants and placing them in soil to make more plants.  Seeds of herbs can be grown into edible herbs. Mint tea can be made from mint leaves. A pineapple plant can be grown from a pineapple top, and garlic plants can be grown from cloves. 

Youngsters could be given projects to “build.” The possibilities are many. In our “throw away” society, many things are discarded, rather than repaired or recycled. What if we asked our students to: fix something that was broken? Take something apart in order to learn how it worked? They could also construct models using common things found around the house. Models of cells, atoms, layers of the earth, human body systems, and the processes of evaporation, etc. can be created with play dough, candy, arts and crafts supplies, markers, paper, glue and anything else you might think of. Disengaged students might quickly develop buy-in when it is time to share their work product and the authentic experience needed to produce it.

Exploration of natural phenomena can be encouraged. Students could be asked to observe moon phases, wave action, the night sky, or their shadow length over given timeframes. Physics students could perform energy audits of their home. There are a myriad of ways to keep our childrens’ attention by being a little flexible and thinking outside of the box. Free digital tools such as Flipgrid (for video) and Padlet (for interactive bulletin boards) enable students to share their work with both you and their peers. Some of these assignments have the potential to become quite memorable, especially if students can remotely share their work in an environment where mistakes are accepted. During this difficult time, I feel we all need to be a little creative in order to keep our students engaged and learning. 

 

Written by: Edith Schneider eschneider@teachingmatters.org

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