Field trips and hands-on lessons are an integral part of K-12 science instruction — at least they should be in normal times. But they have virtually disappeared this school year as a result of students learning from home.
Now, as California is experiencing another coronavirus surge and distance learning continues for by far the majority of students, scientists and museum guides are trying to fill the gap and are taking to Zoom to meet students at home.
Teachers have come up with creative solutions to get students to log on and engage in scientific thinking and experimentation this school year, when the majority of students in California are taking at least part of their classes remotely and don’t have access to the lab equipment or other science supplies typically available on school campuses.
And while a few districts, such as Plumas Unified in Northern California, have embraced outdoor education as one alternative to online learning, wildfires and recent surges in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have hindered those efforts.
One successful strategy that a handful of school districts are taking has been to pull in outside experts to teach topics ranging from aeronautical engineering to agricultural science. Sometimes individual teachers will invite experts to virtually visit their students, while other districts like Oakland Unified are taking broader approaches to help coordinate visits for teachers who express interest.
In Los Angeles Unified, California’s largest school district, district officials launched a pilot project this summer that brought educators from science museums throughout Southern California to offer students virtual after-school enrichment activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
As it became clear that schools in Los Angeles would not return for in-person instruction in the fall, district leaders decided to fold the program into the normal school day.
Now, through a program dubbed the “Season of STEM,” every fifth-grader in L.A. Unified’s Local District Central — about 8,000 students — receives a virtual visit on Wednesday from local scientists who talk them through a lesson and an activity using simple materials at home. L.A. Unified is divided into six local districts, and Local District Central covers communities spanning from Downtown Los Angeles to Eagle Rock.
The program includes 26 different STEM organizations who take turns leading a one-hour lesson every Wednesday for about 230 fifth-grade classes. On Fridays, teachers go deeper on that week’s topic with their students. And after three weeks, a different organization comes in and the cycle repeats.
“It’s difficult to know what materials students have at home when planning lessons and experiments,” said Jessica Polo, a fifth-grade teacher at Trinity Street Elementary in Los Angeles who has been hosting Season of STEM lessons. For her, the guest speakers have been a welcome relief during an already stressful year for lesson planning.
“They are very knowledgeable in these specific fields,” Polo said. “I don’t know if I would have the same knowledge about all of these topics.”
On a recent Wednesday, two educators from the Discovery Cube, a children’s science museum located north of Burbank, led a discussion about bird adaptations and evolution with Polo’s students, who were all at home learning remotely. After providing students with some vocabulary and discussing why different bird species have different features, the Discovery Cube instructors led students in a hands-on activity to test different beak shapes at home.
“What special adaptations or characteristics are different?” Discovery Cube instructor Devon Ohlwiler asked students as they were shown images of different bird species. Students chimed in with responses, and Ohlwiler then challenged students to think of why those differences might exist. Students shared guesses, eventually coming to a conclusion led by Ohlwiler that each species has evolved differently to survive in its unique environment and eat specific foods.
To reinforce the idea, students gathered supplies such as spoons, chopsticks and clothespins to pick up other items like cereal, rice or board game pieces. Then they shared via Zoom how different shapes and surface areas on the tools might make it easier or harder to pick up different objects, representing how bird beaks have adapted to different diets.
“I used a plier, and I can pick up two items at a time,” Ethan Arriola, who attends Trinity Street Elementary, shared with the class. “So a long beak can store more things while it hunts for more food.”
Other classes have given students a look at environments and scientific phenomena happening near where they live. Instructors from the LA Maritime Institute, Emerald Bay Outdoor Academy and the USC Sea Grant, a program at the University of Southern California focused on oceans and the communities near them, for example, launched a travel series for the Season of STEM where the instructors taught live virtual lessons from the outdoors. Lessons took place up and down the Southern California coastline, from the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach to Santa Monica Bay further north.
Wrangling together partners and figuring out how to work with the district’s distance learning schedule wasn’t simple — or cheap. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a major proponent of STEM education in Los Angeles, contributed $350,000 to create the after-school lessons this past summer and gave partner organizations a total of $1.1 million this fall for the Season of STEM program.
Like many districts across the country, Los Angeles Unified has struggled to navigate distance learning when some students do not have steady access to the internet at home, need to share a computer, or their parents work and can’t be around to help with schoolwork during the day.
Despite all the challenges with virtual learning, online classrooms have created an unexpected opportunity for experts to connect with students in ways they might not be able to in a traditional school year, said Ben Dickow, president of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a hands-on space museum in the city of Downey, which is providing STEM lessons through the program.
“If this wasn’t during Covid time, and we brought this idea in, we’d have to be more classroom-oriented,” Dickow said. But with virtual learning, students can practice standards-based science at home, in their backyard, or get a glimpse at scientists in their field themselves. “You can do standards-based science but you don’t have to be in the classroom,” he said.
His organization and others involved with the Season of STEM teamed up last year with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to expand STEM education efforts across the city. The intention was to offer science learning experiences for students for enrichment, such as after-school programs, but grew into a class-time activity for distance learning after success in the summer.
“It’s not a secret that there is a general deficit with STEM education, especially in elementary schools because teachers often aren’t trained in that,” said Dickow, referring to how elementary teachers often have a general education teaching credential rather than a designated subject credential in math or science.
Recently, Polo, the teacher at Trinity Street Elementary, has started tying the science lessons to other subjects like social studies and English language arts, like a recent series about trees and agriculture from the environmental nonprofit TreePeople.
“In social studies, my students are finishing up a project about Native Americans and farming and it really ties into our science lessons,” said Polo, who recently gave her students seeds and planters to practice growing plants from home that they show her on Zoom. “It’s reinforcing what I’m teaching.”
Dickow, of the Columbia Memorial Science Center, jokes that “everybody is building the airplane in the air right now.” But he and other program participants are hopeful that the new partnerships will endure beyond the pandemic when students are back in school.
“We have gotten great feedback from teachers, and it’s been super heartening to see the local STEM community come together. And it’s not just a response to Covid,” he said. “We want to continue this work together in the future.”
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