Combining interactive edtech resources with student choice will encourage engagement, ownership, and ultimately academic success

Harnessing edtech for deeper science engagement

Combining interactive edtech resources with student choice will encourage engagement, ownership, and ultimately academic success

Throughout my career as a science educator in Colorado, Washington, and now in Florida, I’ve collaborated with many tremendous educators to solve the challenge of engaging students in science. Over time and through trial and error, we’ve learned the importance of engaging students in relevant content that is meaningful to them, engaging them in monitoring their own learning, or engaging them through strategies that make learning accessible.

However, I believe the most important factor in achieving a high level of student engagement in science is providing opportunities for students to participate in active learning experiences. As the K-12 science coordinator in a medium-sized school district in Central Florida, it is a critical part of my team’s work to find and create these opportunities and share them with teachers across the district.

There are five examples of these active learning experiences that stand out as effective strategies to achieve student engagement through relevancy, self-monitoring of learning, and accessible learning for every student:

  • Finding current content that students care about or could care about
  • Sharing high-interest images or videos paired with an instructional strategy that helps students process their learning
  • Allowing students to explore interactives with guiding questions
  • Giving students the opportunity to show what they know through different ways
  • Chunking experiences so students achieve bursts of achievement and feel successful, not overwhelmed

Having access to digital media allows updates to content much more frequently. An example of a resource that updates content to the most current, relevant, and interesting topics and events is the Discovery Education Science Techbook, which my district has used for number of years. Through news stories, videos, images, and virtual field trips, students can see things they normally would not in their day-to-day lives. Living in Florida, our students don’t get to see polar bears in nature. A virtual field trip to the tundra immerses them in this environment. For students interested in basketball or other sports, there are virtual experiences focused on careers and academic concepts related to athletics. Future marine biologists explore ocean ecosystems, which are brought to life through beautiful imagery. Students will find topics that interest and engage them, or they might even find new topics they love. The world is opened up to students through digital media.

Pairing high-impact instructional strategies that help students process incoming content is critical to student engagement. An otherwise passive experience for students is made much more interactive by pairing a strategy with content. For example, while watching a video of ocean ecosystems, instead of students putting their heads down and paying minimal attention to the video, they are asked to critically think about what they are watching. The AEIOU is an example of a good strategy that pairs with videos. Students are asked to list an adjective that describes what they see or learn (A); describe an emotion the video evokes (E); note something interesting (I); share what is surprising–Oh! (O); and detail what questions they have–Um? (U). This AEIOU strategy gives teachers a simple way to facilitate active learning for students. Students across the district engage in this strategy and share their thoughts about what they are seeing, thinking, and wondering.

Interactives such as the PhET Interactive Simulations give students the opportunity to make decisions, manipulate content, or run a simulation. Created at the University of Colorado Boulder, PhET is a nonprofit open educational resource project that creates and hosts explorable explanations. PhET’s active learning experiences guide students to play and learn simultaneously. These types of activities are also where self-monitoring is continually happening through the feedback from the interactive. Whether it is matching academic vocabulary to its meaning, comparing and contrasting types of cells, or dragging and dropping a pollinator to a plant, students are in control and process the content they are learning as they are playing. Intentionally placed guiding questions can be integrated into the interactive, making sure students are understanding why they are doing a certain activity and how it connects to the content they are learning. Simulations, through both PhET and Pivot Interactives, also give students an animated view into how a concept works. For example, force and motion and natural selection are explained through simulations and can help these concepts come to life. Students have a visual in motion to reinforce their understanding. Again, asking questions throughout their learning will help focus on the intent of the interactives.

We all know that assessing student learning in only one way does not give all students the opportunity to show what they know. There are multiple ways to engage students in the process of demonstrating their knowledge of a concept. Giving students the option to choose provides a sense of ownership for students in this step of learning. Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning is a solid framework for science and can guide students as they communicate their understanding through the lens of a scientist. Students can create a model, a video, or a skit that shows their scientific explanation. They can communicate their understanding through a visual presentation using images, videos, data, and other evidence. Developing games, comics, web pages, and more can all also engage students in explaining what they know. Kahoot and Quizziz both provide digital options which allow each student, or team of students, to answer questions about the content. This can be used to formatively assess students while providing either a jumping off point, or a mid- to end-point in a lesson and is used to plan instruction for follow-up based on student understanding.

Students need to feel success in school so they don’t shut down. We can help them navigate academics, especially difficult concepts within a course, by chunking the learning experiences. Instead of navigating through a long unit, smaller and accessible experiences are assigned. Students complete the experience, which will encourage them to continue to the next section, building their understanding as they go. The 5E instructional model, which consists of five phases: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate, is an example of how learning can be chunked, taking advantage of a highly effective and engaging pathway for learning. Within the Explain, for example, text can be broken up by images and videos where students can process their learning through an instructional strategy that summarizes what they see or hear (6-word story, 3-2-1, or concept circles). Reflection questions can be offered that challenge students to record their answers in their science notebooks.  These are just a few of the possible strategies that can be employed.

It is important to engage students, particularly in the current educational environment. Exploring how science relates to their lives is a great step in guiding them forward. Using strategies connected with content, thoughtfully integrating edtech into instruction to create throughout active learning experiences, chunking the content in a pathway through difficult concepts, and giving students a choice in how they are assessed will encourage engagement, ownership, and ultimately success.

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