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Educators are using digital resources to meaningfully support science teaching and learning--and the easiest edtech tools to use are the best

The simplest elementary school science edtech

Most educators are using digital resources to meaningfully support teaching and learning--and sometimes, the easiest tools to use are the best

During the spring of 2020, the global education community faced tremendous disruption as it transitioned to emergency remote teaching in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfamiliar with the challenges of integrating edtech into instruction within a remote environment, elementary science teachers struggled to apply best practices—such as three-dimensional instruction, collaborative learning, and hands-on experimentation—into instruction.

While teachers in my region have traditionally met technology integration with trepidation, during the pandemic they embraced edtech and learned to rely on it as a mechanism to engage students in the learning process. Today, edtech is as much a part of the fabric of instruction as pencils and paper.

During emergency teaching, the innovative educators I work with sought to implement any edtech tool that purported to help keep students engaged in learning. But, as the pandemic recedes into the rearview mirror, educators have become choosier about the edtech they use. 

More edtech is not the answer.  In fact, adding a technological feature to a lesson simply for the sake of using technology can be counterproductive regarding student comprehension of the essential learning objectives. When integrating technology programs, teachers must consider the students’ working memory and the role of cognitive load to avoid pitfalls that could impede the learning of the desired content.

Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory consists of three types of loads: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. The intrinsic load includes what the students bring to the learning environment with them based on their individual experiences and needs. Extraneous load includes external features that compete for the student’s attention and inadvertently raise the rigor of the learning task–such as learning to use a technology device and program while learning the assigned content. Germane load includes the desired content students need to master, such as a science concept like the physical properties of matter.

While most edtech programs include science content based on state-mandated objectives, program features and actually learning to use the program are extraneous loads. If the program is too difficult to use, the students may only learn to work the program, and not learn the germane content. Likewise, if a program is not user-friendly for teachers, the teachers may not build the confidence required to implement the program by developing and making assignments needed effectively.

So, as my school system’s Elementary Science Supervisor, I’ve made it a priority to review our inventory of science edtech resources and promote those that balance ease-of-use and impact.  Here are five edtech tools that I believe exemplify that balance:

  • Gizmos by Explore Learning. Gizmos allows students to select variables before running a digital simulation and make observations during the simulation. Gizmos provides simulations and STEM cases for 3rd – 12th-grade science and mathematics. The program collects data and allows students to analyze the data in different charts and graphs. One limitation of Gizmos is related to challenges faced by teachers as they set up their classes and activate the students’ accounts. However, this can be delimited by integrating the program into a rostering system such as Clever or ClassLink. On any account, the benefit of the program outweighs the limitations when the students are able to experiment with digital labs that are too costly to implement otherwise. Additionally, simulation programs such as Gizmos allow students to conduct experiment-based investigations from any location and with limited interaction with others. 
  • Wizer Worksheet BuilderThe Wizer worksheet builder compliments teachers’ experience and creativity by allowing the quick creation of digital worksheets with a wide variety of question types: open questions, multiple choice, matching pairs, fill in the blank, fill on an image, tables, etc.  In addition, educators using Wizer can easily add any rich media (video, audio, images) directly to the interactive worksheet, making new learning or practicing new skills easy.  Teachers can share these worksheets with students with one click, and automatic grading saves teacher’s time.
  • The Discovery Education Science Techbook. The play on words related to the traditional textbook does not go unnoticed. However, this technology can easily be described as the textbook of the future. The Science Techbook integrates rich content including well-placed high-quality educational videos, photography, audio files, simulations, and suggested lab activities. This program provides support structures for teachers allowing easy procedures for lesson planning including 5E formatting, lesson assignment, and teacher development. Discovery Education’s Science Techbook also allows simple navigation for students and differentiated student supports including vocabulary enhancements and Spanish translation for emergent bilingual students. Discovery Education’s Techbook can stand alone as it covers the depth and breadth of the required science content standards including NGSS, individual state standards such as the Texas Essentials of Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), and the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS).  In addition to the Science Techbook, Discovery Education also offers Mystery Science. Mystery Science is delightful! This resource, which is also TEKS aligned, provides elementary teachers, often science novices, with engaging digital content, detailed lab experiment descriptions, access to related handouts, and manageable lists of required consumable materials to conduct hands-on labs.  Using the combination of Science Techbook and Mystery Science has been a game-changer in many Texas school systems like mine.
  • Wakelet. This free resource comes from the United Kingdom and allows users to collect and curate multimodal digital resources, including websites, articles, videos, Twitter threads, text, and images. Wakelet is an easy-to-use collaboration tool that helps collaboratively organize projects and construct their own knowledge. It can also be used as a multimodal presentation app. Wakelet can also be used for professional learning, as it has the ability to help tell stories and share best practices–synchronously or asynchronously– with colleagues across the school system.
  • Khan Academy. Needing little introduction, Kahn Academy includes virtual courses, lab simulations, videos, and quizzes for science grades 6th -12th including biology, Earth and space, and physics as well as Advanced Placement (AP) science course and mathematics for pre-kindergarten -12th grade.

Today’s teachers have more on their plates than ever.  While the vast majority of educators have made a quantum leap in their ability to use digital resources to meaningfully support teaching and learning, it is important to remember that sometimes, the easiest tools to use are the best.

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