STEM education — the integration and interdisciplinary approach to science, technology, engineering, and math — is a hands-on endeavor. STEM educators typically rely on in-person activities to explain theoretical concepts, with students taking field trips to the aquarium, incubating chicken eggs in the classroom, or using a sports field to learn physics principles, for instance.
The COVID-19 pandemic upended such learning options. Whether educators are teaching remotely, in-person or in a hybrid model, STEM classes look very different today. Safety precautions, spatial limitations and changes to students’ schedules require a new, flexible approach to STEM lessons.
In addition, students in marginalized racial groups or of lower socioeconomic status face significant technological barriers when it comes to remote learning, and educators face the challenge of keeping them engaged in a STEM curriculum. Thus, experts fear that the pandemic will only exacerbate the STEM achievement gap.
The good news is that there are resources available to help STEM teachers find new methods to teach. Here are a few ways educators are confronting pandemic-induced curriculum and instruction challenges.
A New Approach to Lab Equipment
If a school is still conducting some in-person learning, classes may continue with STEM labs, provided they can adequately sanitize and disinfect lab spaces and equipment, under the guidance and basic frameworks provided by school districts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to those, teachers should discourage sharing of lab equipment or technology materials like microscopes and computers, along with eliminating or reducing the need for students to gather close to each other. This might mean working in shifts, so that equipment can be sanitized in between uses.
Teachers must be mindful of keeping proper ventilation when using sanitizing and cleaning products, which, when possible, should not be used around students at all. Such cleaning procedures will likely require time at the beginning and end of class, something to take into consideration when lesson planning.
Bringing the Lab Home
When schools have implemented hybrid or remote learning, STEM teachers may need to adapt labs to conduct them from home. This will be more challenging for classes like high school chemistry or anatomy than others. Some schools have seen success with conducting only part of a lab in person.
At UC Berkeley, Lynn Huntsinger provided her ecology students with soil lab kits, complete with specimens, seeds, and jars, to conduct lab work at home. Chemistry or physics teachers might also consider assigning the background reading for a lab in advance so students can familiarize themselves with the scientific concepts. They would then watch while the teacher performs the final experiment with hazardous materials or specialized equipment via livestream.
A number of interactive STEM projects are also available online. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the STEM for All Multiplex has collected three-minute videos of STEM resources for teachers, students, and parents, organized by grade level from Pre-K through high school. The hub then links to resources, all of which are free, courtesy of federally funded programs.
Take It Outside
Given concerns about virus transmission indoors, taking in-person science classes outdoors presents a way to mitigate the risk. New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante points out that during tuberculosis outbreaks in the early 20th century, New York City schools held classes outdoors. This, she argues, could also work in a contemporary setting.
Research has shown that all students, but especially children who have emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities, benefit from outdoor science classes versus indoor ones. And hundreds of studies have confirmed a link between engagement with nature and academic achievement.
STEM lessons are well-suited to exploration outdoors. Walks in nature, or even natural exploration in urban areas, will provide some of the same hands-on, multi-sensory learning that students would normally gain from lab work or experiments. Teacher-led outdoor activities for in-person learning are suitable for all ages; older students can conduct such activities on their own while learning remotely.
Outdoor exploration in a student’s local and familiar environment makes lessons concrete in a personal way, to say nothing of the inherent value in physical movement and fresh air at a time when students have been more isolated at home than ever.
Learn more about EWU’s Master of Education – Curriculum & Instruction online program.
Children & Nature Network: Impacts of Outdoor Environmental Education on Teacher Reports of Attention, Behavior, and Learning Outcomes for Students with Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioral Disabilities