Sticking with STEM: Maintaining Hands-On Learning While Virtual

I was recently interviewed on a podcast and was asked how I felt about the changes in education in light of the pandemic. We discussed the fact that a lot has changed; for educators, for students, and for families. The circumstances that we are in have caused schools to make shifts to different modes of learning. Some schools may have the fortune to remain in a face-to-face environment, seeing students daily and continuing the valuable connections that come from the traditional school setting. Others schools have shifted to hybrid models with students following alternative schedules to ensure health and safety practices. Yet others are fully remote, connecting with students virtually. While many schools and districts are utilizing different models of education, they all maintain one important focus which is providing effective instruction to students.

 

Staying focused on effective instruction may be a challenge when we are navigating new online learning platforms or communication tools. It may be even more difficult when connecting with students and families may have some barriers with access to reliable internet as well as access to devices. One additional concern that I shared was that some schools are opting to limit or even eliminate STEM learning opportunities for students. With concerns around shared materials, social distancing, and having students gather together, I understand the safety concerns but would encourage educators and school leaders to look at alternative ways to maintain the positive impact that STEM learning can have on students of all ages.

 

The recent limitations on STEM instruction worries me because we have seen such positive outcomes over the years from students engaging in collaborative work on integrated projects that infuse science, technology, engineering, and math into the classroom. I fear that if we eliminate this type of learning, we will experience multiple negative effects. Our students will lose the ability to communicate and collaborate in meaningful ways, if we don’t give them the chance to do it. We may be taking away the one area that is a super strength of some of our most vulnerable learners. We know that our English Language Learners thrive with hands-on learning. We’ve also observed students with special needs excelling in classrooms where project-based learning and STEM experiences are fostered. All students need these experiences to continue to learn and grow with a goal of become well-rounded global citizens. Let’s consider some of the ways to maintain quality STEM learning in our schools.

 

Go Virtual

Maintaining a focus on STEM while learning in a virtual environment means tapping into digital tools to support discovery, creativity, and innovation while students are learning at home. Take a look at some sites like Science Fair Central and Innovation Generation, which offer ideas for remote STEM learning, design challenges, and virtual field trips. Defined Learning provides relevant STEM content, rigorous performance tasks and creative lesson ideas that can be used to promote student learning whether at home or at school. While your STEM classroom may look different with students learning from their bedrooms and kitchen tables, they can still engage in meaningful learning in science, technology, engineering, and math using digital tools that you can curate for them.

 

Solo STEM

 A collaborative spirit is often palpable when you step into a STEM classroom. Students are engaged in productive chatter as they brainstorm, design, build, and test. This process is exciting. It fuels the imagination and pushes students to wonder and explore. Let’s face it, STEM challenges are more fun when they can be done together, but we can design solo STEM projects that students can do on their own if we cannot experience them together in the classroom.

 

Individual challenges that can be completed solo within the classroom or at home can still offer students the excitement of integrated STEM learning. We can continue to engage learners in inquiry and guide them through the engineering design process. We can create science experiments using simple household materials and offer design challenges that foster critical thinking and problem solving skills. We can set up learning experiences through online lessons or videos and have students extend the STEM concepts on their own.

 

Committed to the Purpose

 The reasons why you chose to engage in STEM learning years ago are still the reasons why you should maintain STEM instruction now. It is a meaningful approach to learning for all students. We want students to become independent critical thinkers. We want them to be able to solve complex problems. We want them to be able to access important resources to advance their own learning. These things still remain true. Even more so than before, we need our students to be curious, use their imaginations, and reflect on their learning. We need them to continue to communicate and collaborate in new and different ways.

 

Staying committed to the purpose of STEM learning will allow us to forge ahead, even in times when we may be questioning our practices. Hands-on STEM learning engages students. It pushes their thinking and fosters creativity. These are good things for kids. Let’s continue to promote STEM learning through digital tools and individualized challenges that can engage our students and help them to build important skills that we know they will need in the future.


About the author:
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.


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