Shuksan Middle School student Raul Morales explaining how a cloud forms with his demonstration in a FlipGrid

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, teachers across the country have been doing figurative backbends to adapt to a remote learning environment. This is especially true for science teachers, who have been teaching curriculum that increasingly emphasizes hands-on learning. How does one do hands-on learning online?  And how do you cultivate student engagement when 90% of the students have their cameras off?

The short answer: creativity, technology, stories and collaboration.

Teachers are emphasizing the science in our every day lives, creating assignments that use everyday materials around their home to illustrate phenomena. For one assignment, an eighth grade teacher asked students to find an example of condensation in their home and post a video of themselves explaining the scientific phenomena. For another, students used household materials like beads and beans to show energy transfer in the atmosphere.

Teachers are also relying more on online programs like Amplify Science, which allows students to simulate dissections and other activities that are harder or impossible to do in real life, such as mating spiders to determine how certain traits could be passed down.

Storytelling is another way teachers are capturing the attention of their students.

“Brittany is a fictional character that we inserted into one of our units,” said Calvin Atkins, science teacher at Shuksan Middle School. “I think food poisoning was the original. She was too busy playing video games to put the groceries away like her mom asked and she ate the chicken, which had been on the counter for 10 hours, and got really sick.”

Brittany’s story has morphed over the years and has gotten quite complex with siblings, relationships, and a potential fecal transplant.

“It was a way for them to buy in,” said Sarah Whitten, science teacher at Fairhaven Middle School. “I had a student yesterday who made a connection after finding out Brittany has a twin saying, ‘well, they can’t be identical twins,’ connecting back to a previous unit that featured Brittany. I think there is buy-in when it’s a person and more realistic.”

Assigning students group work has also helped keep students engaged. They can use Microsoft Teams to chat, ask questions and share their work. In one Teams channel, students discussed DNA and Hemophilia, marveling at how something as small as DNA could have such large impacts.

“Kids can interact with each other outside of live Zoom class time and they can post their questions, comments, or citations for an article,” said Kristy Russell, science teacher at Whatcom Middle School. “I’ve been enjoying seeing them have some robust conversations. We’re trying to provide multiple ways for students to engage with each other.”

Teachers have been sharing assignments and materials as they create them, “We’re definitely collaborating far more than we ever have before,” said Atkins.

“We have one common space where we can all create,” said Julie Bennett, science teacher at Kulshan Middle School. “It’s kind of like you’re all sitting at a table with your notebooks open and you could walk around the table and look at everybody’s notebook and see what they’re working on, and then you can copy and paste pieces that you want over to your notebook. But it’s a 24/7 notebook and this year we have been up at odd hours. We have some people who are up at midnight and some people start working at 7 a.m. and other people start working at 5 a.m.”

The intensive collaboration started before COVID-19 and was facilitated by the adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

“We had a foundation set up through our curriculum adoption a few years ago,” said Allison Neils-LeMoine, science teacher at Shuksan Middle School. “Charisse Berner headed that adoption and saw that it was important to provide days throughout the year to learn together and collaborate as we were implementing the new curriculum. I think that really helped us set this stage for today, working as a grade level and also across grade levels.

“Despite the fact that were in this COVID, remote-teaching crisis, we were poised to be able to work together. We already had shared curriculum and collaborative norms. The increased collaboration has definitely been a positive experience and it is exciting to see the growth and the interaction, and to learn more about what it’s like in the other classrooms and schools. And I think this will be helpful in the long run for science in our rooms as well as across the district.”

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