Lessons Learned in the Year of the Pandemic
Valuable takeaways that can be applied to science education moving forward
As schools shifted to remote and hybrid models of learning during the past year in response to the pandemic, educators scrambled to rework lessons and familiarize themselves with technology as they developed new methods for teaching. While the uncharted territory was stressful, there were bright spots as teachers examined best methods for reaching students.
“Teachers have found really valuable techniques this past year and technology that they were excited to learn about,” Kristen Dotti says. Dotti is a geneticist and national educational consultant and trainer who guides teachers in using hands-on methods for implementing student-centered, Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS) practices. “A lot of them already had it on their radar,” she explains. “More tech, more tech.”
The following new tools of the trade are among takeaways that can be applied to science teaching and learning moving forward.
Investigations can be done at students’ homes. Without classroom time constraints, homework can be more interesting and meaningful if students do investigations at their homes. “I think teachers are more successful when they understand that homework shouldn’t be schoolwork you do at home,” Brett D. Moulding says. Moulding, a member of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K–12 Science Education Standards and of the writing team for NGSS, has decades of classroom experience making science relevant and engaging for every student. “Homework,” he explains, “can be, in fact, the investigation, and the discussion can occur in the classroom when kids come back to school.” Programs developed to assist teachers during the pandemic with at-home learning and flexible investigations can continue to provide options for enriched experiences.
Parents make great partners. Teachers can work with parents and other caregivers to engage students in science investigations. “When kids are doing something fun, like bouncing a ball, there’s a science in that,” Moulding says. “It’s very different from learning a times table or memorization, so we want science investigations that engage the parents as well as the students.” An effective curriculum can encourage family participation through take-home science and engineering investigations that support learning through transference and validation of knowledge.
Online platforms enhance learning. When students input information into a shared-model format, all students benefit and can more readily engage in the practices of scientific argument from evidence and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. “Before the pandemic, we didn’t realize the value in that, to have a place to be recorded and shared across the classroom,” Moulding acknowledges. “But the platforms we had to use during the pandemic should be used now so students’ work is recorded into files that are accessible for other students to engage in.”
Technology improves assessment. In standards-based assessment, students are evaluated on their performance of an expectation. During the pandemic, Dotti says, testing was an ineffective tool to evaluate learning. “Because tests didn’t work, we saw improvements in assessment that will probably persist,” she explains. “Students learned how to use process portfolios, how to document thinking and learning as it occurred and to capture that in a digital environment. When a student is producing material, the teacher can watch their progress. . . . These are the tools of standards-based grading.”
Science supports other subjects. Literacy and math skills are key among the science and engineering practices described in A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012, 50–53), and by behaving as scientists and engineers, students apply these skills. “Science is a great way to get kids excited about reading as they read about phenomena and write explanations for the causes of phenomena,” Moulding says. Curricula and investigation kits should support students as they read and write about phenomena and use tables, diagrams, graphs, and equations.
Limited content doesn’t inhibit learning. The Framework states that K–12 science education should focus on a small set of core ideas that prepare students with sufficient knowledge and competencies so they can develop as science learners as well as users and producers of scientific knowledge (NRC 2012, 31). This was put to the test during the pandemic when time limitations with students also limited teachers’ ability to cover what some state science standards stipulated. “Everyone feels wary of what will happen if I don’t cover these 30 or 50 chapters,” Dotti says of concerns cited by teachers. “Most teachers tested that during the pandemic and are now wondering, ‘How am I going to recover that?’ The truth is, we can just go forward and say, ‘When the content is necessary, the kids will access it. We will take a moment to recover bits and pieces as we go.’”
What Teachers Are Saying
What are educators’ priorities in teaching science this fall and overall concerns? Carolina sought to find out by conducting three national surveys that elicited responses from more that 800 grades K–12 teachers.
In teaching science, respondents are most looking forward to doing hands-on labs with students this fall. They’re eager for the face-to-face instruction that lets them see that aha moment on a student’s face and have students share ideas and work in groups.
Many teachers also plan to incorporate digital resources that supported them during remote learning to enhance in-person learning when appropriate. In fact, more than 86% of the respondents said they are more likely to include hands-on labs that use some digital resources.
All these tools combine to address a continued chief concern: student engagement. Most survey respondents ranked that as their primary concern for education this fall, followed closely by learning recovery, health and safety, and social and emotional learning (SEL) issues.
A final takeaway: As you begin the new school year, consider how to make science instruction engaging, relevant, and equitable. Don’t worry about what students learned—or didn’t learn—as class environments shifted during the pandemic. From the first day, immerse students in something experiential—a hands-on investigation of a phenomenon that builds curiosity, engagement, and motivation. The result will be a great learning experience for all students.
National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.
Carolina Biological Supply Company is a leading supplier of science teaching materials. Headquartered in Burlington, North Carolina, it serves customers worldwide, including teachers, professors, homeschool educators, and professionals in health- and science-related fields. Carolina is the exclusive developer and distributor of the standards-based Building Blocks of Science® 3D curriculum and the BBS3D@Home digital component for grades K–5 as well as the Carolina Kits 3D® and Carolina Kits 3D® Flex programs for grades 9–12. Carolina is also the exclusive distributor of Smithsonian Science Programs for K–8.
Learn how a robust three-dimensional, phenomena-based science program motivates students and supports equitable and relevant learning for grades K–8 at Carolina.com/curriculum and high school at Carolina.com/3D.
*Next Generation Science Standards® is a registered trademark of WestEd. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.