California schools were already undergoing a transformation to the way science is taught across the state before campuses were forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic. During the last few months of school, science teachers had to use a variety of tools to keep science lessons going at a safe distance, from at-home experiments to virtual simulations.
The pandemic has forced teachers to adapt goals and lessons to a virtual setting where teachers and students no longer share the same class or lab space. And that has made it difficult for some teachers to continue teaching California’s new science standards, which put a stronger emphasis on hands-on learning.
“It’s a shame we can’t be in person to do hands-on labs,” said Robin Cooper, a seventh-grade science teacher at Albany Middle School in Alameda County. “There isn’t much out there that will be a replacement.”
Instead, she and other science teachers across the state have had to blend live lessons via video platforms like Zoom, encouraging students to do investigations and experiments at home and trying to connect the global pandemic to their studies.
“It’s more important than ever to have effective science instruction when we are depending on science during this crisis,” said Marcia Linn, a professor of development and cognition specializing in science and technology at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. “We haven’t done a good job with this, even for our leaders who don’t understand basic principles of science. That really scares me.”
In 2013, California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which focus on learning science through hands-on experiments, students’ own experiences and questions, and less rote memorization. But implementing new science curriculum and teaching methods has been slow. Last spring, less than a third of California students met or exceeded standards on a new science test developed to measure progress on the new standards.
Dylan Bland, a science teacher at College Park High School in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, was teaching a unit to his freshman science class about viral diseases and pandemics just before the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect in March. He was gearing up for several hands-on labs and other activities to wrap up the school year on a high note, but those plans were put on hold during distance learning since students don’t have all of the necessary supplies and safety gear at home.
“The timing couldn’t be worse because the end of the year was supposed to be the payoff for all of their work with these labs,” said Bland, referring to a biomedical science class he teaches. “We were going to do a heart dissection and all of these other activities.”
His strategy is to focus on research projects that incorporate some experimentation at home when possible, like in a unit about cardiovascular health where students practiced checking a pulse.
“I’m for sure learning a lot less, especially for bio-med,” said Taryn Lewis, a freshman at College Park High. “A lot of that class is built around hands-on experiences so we can see what careers would be like, and we’re missing out on all of that. I’m still learning, but it’s different.”
Lewis said her other classes were a relatively easier transition to online, “but we had a lot of labs for the end of the year that we will maybe make up next year, but it’s still not the same as doing them in school.”
Like many other teachers in California, Bland held occasional video lessons with students to go over assignments and discuss students’ research projects, as well as virtual simulations of scientific processes when labs aren’t feasible.
“Given the circumstances we are in, the simulations are about as hands-on as we can expect,” Bland said.
Cooper, the science teacher in Albany, has similarly struggled with asking students to do experiments at home. One tool she used is WISE, an online science curriculum developed by faculty at UC Berkeley in the 1990s that has since expanded to include online lessons and virtual labs.
“Here’s the problem,” Cooper said. “I don’t know what supplies they have, so I don’t feel like I can have them do many experiments. And also there are safety concerns” with asking them to go out and purchase items. “It’s public school, and you need to make sure every kid can participate.”
Cooper said she hasn’t yet found a virtual lab that’s quite as good as the real thing. But WISE has allowed her students to run different simulations for experiments that would even be too big for a classroom. For example, in a lesson on the chemistry behind climate change and fossil fuels, she has students run a model in the online program that allows them to test different types of cars and fuels, how each changes air chemistry, and even analyze the financial cost of the different scenarios.
Rather than trying to create the new hands-on lab at home, she’s “trying to take advantage of the tools that are maybe easier to do with technology than it might be in the classroom,” she said. “We are very strict about no phones in our school, for example. So I want them to make a video now, and that’s not easy to do in the classroom if you don’t use phones.”
She also held small group work and live Zoom sessions to go over topics like reading soil maps and understanding plate tectonics. And she’s encouraging students to go outdoors safely for hands-on science on their own, like going for a hike or baking.
Technical glitches and low attendance are two major challenges that teachers all over California have experienced in the transition to distance learning. “A good portion of each day is scanning how everyone is doing,” Cooper said. ”Has anyone dropped off?”
Bland said the hardest part has been not knowing the effect the change in instruction is having on students.
“I don’t get to learn as much about my students, like, ‘Oh you’re the starting pitcher on the softball team?’” Bland said. “That’s an invaluable part of teaching. And it’s still happening, but those connections are much harder to come by.”
Bland’s unit on viruses also covered what happened in previous pandemics, such as the global flu epidemic of 1918, which is the deadliest on record and that came back in the fall with an even stronger wave. Now that the school year has come to a close, the science teacher and his students are beginning to imagine what lessons and labs might look like next fall.
“I would be okay with it. It would just be a lot harder because we have summer and I might slip out of my routine that I’ve built,” said Lilja Grant, a freshman in Bland’s biomedical science class. “Then we have to go back and start a whole curriculum with distance learning.”
Lewis, the freshman at College Park, said she is worried about reopening schools too early during the pandemic. “It doesn’t seem like it’s getting better,” she said. “I’m willing to sacrifice a small part of my education so people can stay safe.”