COVID-19 has completely changed the way most people work. Under the constraints of social distancing, which include bans on groups of more than 10 people, shelter-in-place requirements, and self-quarantines, many places of business are having employees work remotely. Some of these businesses are already seeing the benefits of a remote workforce, including increased productivity and employee retention, reduced business expenses for employers, increased job satisfaction, and cost savings for employees.
But not all remote work is equal. Many teachers are finding that connecting with students remotely is difficult for a variety of reasons:
- Teachers are used to being in a classroom where they are able to monitor students’ progress in real-time and offer help as soon as it is needed.
- Some teachers may not be familiar with the online platforms they are suddenly having to rely on.
- Outside the classroom setting, students and teachers are missing the social aspects of education.
- Not all students have reliable access to the internet or a computer.
In addition to these challenges, science teachers are faced with another, unique problem. While many subjects can be taught through reading, discussion, and essay-writing, laboratory work is by definition hands-on. Additionally, while many parents feel comfortable helping their children with reading or writing assignments, they may feel less secure in their knowledge of science or how to teach it. So what do you do when the schools are closed and you need to teach grade school science?
Options for Teaching Science At Home
Option 1: Provide Students with Data
Some university science teachers have decided to provide their students with data, which the students can then analyze. This is one solution, based on the idea that correctly analyzing data to form a conclusion is the most important part of a lab and is often practiced in college lab settings.
But some of the best teachable moments in a grade school science class come from a student’s own mistakes. When a student comes to you after an experiment and says this is my answer, but it doesn’t make sense, you have an opportunity to ask them what it is about the data that doesn’t make sense, what the data show, and what might have gone wrong during the experiment. This investigation is infinitely more useful for grade school students than a successful outcome. When things go right, students often just learn the steps to completing the experiment, rather than the importance or significance of the steps or the reasoning behind a procedure or a particular setup.
Option 2: Provide Students with Videos of Experiments
Much like providing data, showing a video does not allow students the luxury of learning from their own mistakes. It does, however, allow them to bear witness to how experiments are performed (the P.P.E. worn, the experimental setup, the look and sound of reactions, etc.), which makes it a more valuable tool. The Journal of Visual Experiments is providing free access through June 15 to its video library of science experiments, which high school teachers may find useful for their more advanced science classes.
With relatively little expense, teachers can also make videos of themselves conducting experiments, which allows them to control things like what information is given, what P.P.E. is worn (often well-intentioned people are woefully under-protected during YouTube video experiments), and the outcome of the experiment. Or, with careful planning, a teacher can make a “mistake” in the experiment and see whether students can determine from the data what error in the experiment would produce these results.
Option 3: Simulations
Experimental simulations are a wonderful tool for students to use when they can’t be in the laboratory. The trouble is that you can’t always find exactly what you are looking for, and simulations can be expensive to create. PhET at the University of Colorado provides hundreds of free online science and math simulations in a variety of subject areas at different levels, which may be useful to some middle or high school teachers may find useful. It is important to note, however, that PhET only provides simulations, so teachers and parents will still need to provide lessons and assessments for the students.
Option 4: Substitutions
Not every science lesson has to use expensive glassware and hard-to-find chemicals. The collection and analysis of data does not need to take place in a laboratory at all; in fact, much of scientific research involves collecting data by observing nature. Zoologists, volcanologists, marine biologists, geologists, astronomers, and meteorologists all routinely collect data by observing the world around them. And with the proper guidance, your students can too. Science News, for instance, has high school students collecting data from around their own homes in their The Home as Laboratory activity.
What About Elementary and Middle School?
You may have noticed that many of the resources available are for high school students, as these resources rely heavily on the students to read instructions or data, take notes, and think critically through more advanced scientific topics. This is unfortunate, as younger students are often the ones who need more support from their science teachers as they learn the foundations of science and are therefore more likely to require additional resources than older students.
The good news is that students of all ages can perform some hands-on experiments using common household items. Combining baking soda and vinegar will allow students to explore the formation of new substances (5-PS1-4) and conservation of mass (5-PS1-2, HS-PS1-7), and combining steel wool and vinegar creates an exothermic reaction, while combining baking soda and citric acid or vinegar creates an endothermic reaction (HS-PS1-4).
And, in fact, some household experiments can actually be a lot of fun for students, teachers, and parents. For instance, elementary school children can use household items to perform experiments to determine what plants need to thrive (K-LS1-1, 2-LS2-1, 3-LS3-2, 5-LS1-1) or create alternative forms of communication (1-PS4-1, 1-PS4-4, 4-PS3-2, 4-PS4-3). Older students would probably enjoy creating videos of their home-made egg-drops (MS-PS2-1, HS-PS2-3), electromagnets (MS-PS2-3, HS-PS2-5), or solar ovens (4-PS3-4, MS-PS3-3, MS-PS3-4, HS-PS3-3) using household objects and sharing the videos with each other online.
Victory Productions is planning to release a number of these types of science substitution lessons on our website for free to the general public, in the hopes that we can help alleviate some of the pressures felt by teachers who are now having to teach science at home rather than in the classroom, as well as parents who may want all the help they can get.
Our science team will be creating these parent- and teacher-friendly at-home NGSS lessons over the next few weeks, so if you have any suggestions, please put them in the comments below!