Apr 01 2021

Maintaining STEM Engagement Requires Imagination and Creativity from Schools

School districts across the country have developed innovative ways to deliver interactive STEM instruction in a remote learning environment.

Cajon Valley Middle School in El Cajon, Calif., real-world relevance is a top priority. Using a curriculum called World of Work, or WOW, teachers guide students through experiences that make use of student interests revealed in research-based career assessments — setting them up to one day enter the workforce armed with an informed understanding of the options available to them.

But for the past year, students have attended school in either a remote or hybrid model, or full-time five days a week at some schools, forcing teachers to devise new ways to deliver hands-on, relevant instruction, especially in the content areas of science, technology, engineering and math. “The teachers are being super resilient,” says Ed Hidalgo, chief innovation and engagement officer for Cajon Valley Union School District. “They’re not going to be able to get robotics kits out to all kids, but over the summer, we sent home kits of STEM materials, and teachers have created activities using things you can find at home, such as foodstuffs, string, tape and cardboard.”

The coronavirus pandemic has presented problems for teachers in all subject areas, but STEM teachers have faced a special challenge as they try to find replacements for interactive lessons such as biology dissections and chemistry labs. Beth Allan, president of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), notes that there’s been a national move to push STEM instruction away from textbooks and toward more hands-on activities across grade levels.

“That’s a really different way of teaching, and now we’re asking teachers to do it remotely,” Allan says. “There are teachers who have taken activities that were meant to be in a classroom and modified them for home. You look at online forums, and teachers are really envisioning new ways to use technology to foster a deeper understanding of science through investigations and discussions. That’s one of the good things that will come out of all of this.”

Tech Eases the Transition to Remote Learning

Technology has been a major factor in helping teachers deliver meaningful instruction remotely, Hidalgo says. He notes that students at Cajon Valley Middle School all had their own district-issued Chromebooks well before the pandemic, and teachers had been trained to use the devices effectively. “If you’re just going to send a bunch of technology home and the teachers don’t know how to use it, that’s a problem,” he says. “There’s a lot of professional development required to get good at teaching this way.”

Students at Cajon Valley Middle School are using a plethora of applications — including Google Classroom, Beable, iReady, ScreenCastify, Padlet, EdPuzzle, Jamboard and Flipgrid — to work at their own pace, and teachers are aligning activities to career assessments such as the RIASEC (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional) assessment of personality types. Some teachers in the district have led students and their families through cooking lessons to teach math content such as volume and fractions. “For some of the kids who are quieter during in-person instruction, those barriers came down as they were recording their cooking videos,” says Hidalgo.

Interactive learning is at the heart of the Challenger Learning Center for Science and Technology in Woodstock, Ill., which uses space-themed learning environments to engage students in problem-solving STEM activities. Before the pandemic, students visiting the center participated in an immersive mission to Mars, spending half of their time in a mission control center and the other half in a simulated spacecraft.

“We can’t do any of those things with students when they’re remote,” says Denise Brock, lead “flight director” (an instructional role) at Challenger. “We can’t get them robotic arms. So we worked really hard to come up with virtual missions. We have a website with a Zoom call embedded. Students get a dashboard, and they’re divided into breakout rooms. They go over the information they’ve been given, and the goal of the mission is to determine which of two moons they should settle on for future Mars missions.”

Tracy Jacobson, program developer at Challenger, says younger kids participate in remote play-based activities that get them excited about STEM content. “They get the opportunity to hear an astronaut from the International Space Station read a story, and they learn how to track the space station in the sky and when it will pass over their house,” she says. “They design their own space stations within their homes using sheets and furniture.”

“That ends up being a pretty fun day,” says Brock. “We wanted to get the kids off of screens, to try to get them to do something hands-on.”

KEEP READING: Computer science education at Aberdeen High propels growth and equity.

What Does the Future of STEM Pedagogy Hold?

Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts set up a fully online Remote Learning Academy for the 2020-2021 school year. The district sent home packages of materials, and teachers have given students challenges using common household items. In one lesson, students sorted materials by whether they were transparent, translucent or opaque, and then used the materials to try to completely darken a room during the daytime.

But effective STEM instruction goes beyond hands-on activities, notes Sean Musselman, remote learning academy director and a science specialist for the district. “So much of good STEM pedagogy is rooted in discourse,” he says. “Teachers struggled mightily early on with that interaction.”

Over time, Musselman says, teachers became more effective at getting students to collaborate and communicate remotely — especially when Google Meet deployed breakout rooms in the fall. “That gave teachers more flexibility to send students to smaller settings, and it moved the needle considerably in terms of what we were able to get out of kids,” he says.

One silver lining of remote instruction: “Students in our remote learning academy are so much more proficient with the tech tools that we’re using,” Musselman says.

Students in our remote learning academy are so much more proficient with the tech tools that we’re using.”

Sean Musselman Science Specialist, Burlington Public Schools

It’s a benefit that NSTA’s Allan says will serve students well into the future: “I believe this experience is going to enhance STEM pedagogy and experiential learning. Technology isn’t going to go away, and the incredible investments that school systems have made aren’t going to be put back on the shelf.”

See more of the incredible experience at the Challenger Learning Center for Science and Technology at edtechmag.com/k12/ChallengerVid.

Cajon Valley Union School District (Launch Pad)