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Teaching science and other hands-on STEM subjects during a pandemic isn’t always easy—but some tips may help educators navigate a new reality

Answering questions about teaching science in a COVID world

Teaching science and other hands-on STEM subjects during a pandemic isn’t always easy—but some tips may help educators navigate a new reality

In-person, online, or a hybrid classroom for the 2020-21 school year, there’s no one right way to approach teaching science. But for all methods, safety should be the first priority along with helping students engage in the scientific process and relate the lessons to the real world.

In the edLeader Panel “Teaching Science and STEM in a COVID World Fully and Safely—Whatever the Learning Approach,” Dr. Mike Marvel, chief scientist at Flinn Scientific, and James Palcik, director of Education, Safety, and Compliance at Flinn Scientific, helped teachers prepare for the fall by answering the key questions they’ve received about teaching science in a COVID world.

Related content: How a global community helps students adapt to virtual learning

First, many teachers ask them about how new safety and hygiene regimens could affect classroom experiments as they’re teaching science and STEM.

1. Do I need to sanitize everything before and after each class?
Yes. All teachers should follow the guidance provided by their government and Department of Education. However, Palcik said that a common thread is setting up a rigorous cleaning schedule for everything from aprons and safety goggles to Bunsen burners and hot plates.

2. Can I use “X” off brand to clean the equipment or to wash hands?
Again, there may be local regulations on what teachers must use for disinfecting, but school staff should also look to the EPA, CDC, and other sources for the effectiveness of products. Especially in elementary classrooms, make sure you are complying with all recommended methods for safe storage.

3. Do I really have to use one wipe per apron, dispose of masks and gloves, etc.?
In order to avoid cross-contamination, teachers can only use one cleaning cloth per piece of equipment as well as following rules for disposable gloves and masks. While it’s tempting to let students reuse their own disposable gloves and masks, it’s not sanitary.

4. What do I do for elementary school kids?
Here, Palcik said, is an opportunity to model safety for students. When teachers wear gloves, wash their hands before and after a lab, use safety goggles, etc., students see this as the norm and will adopt the habits of their teachers.

Palcik acknowledged that these protocols will increase cleaning time and the availability of equipment, which may be frustrating for teachers and students. In addition, other safety suggestions like having six feet between students or having all desks face in one direction could make science experiments difficult.

Those challenges lead to the main question teachers ask: How do I teach “X” if my classes are online or my kids can’t really do the experiments in school?

Dr. Marvel said the answer is to focus not on the process of gathering data, but to instead look at what teachers are asking the students to do with that data. The students don’t necessarily need to do the experiment, he emphasized, even if they’re meeting in person. The teacher can do the lab in class or record it for online lessons. Then, they can provide the students with the data—electronically or on paper—and give them prompts for scientific analysis.

For example, students can analyze the experimental design and explain how to improve it, talk about the variables and how changing one or more could affect the outcome, debate the significance of the outcomes, or explore the implications for the natural world. They can even connect online for group projects. Again, what’s important is that students focus on looking deeper at the data and not worry about regurgitating facts.

Finally, the presenters both offered advice for doing experiments at home. While they can certainly be fun, they cautioned that an adult or guardian should closely supervise the activity and make sure they adhere to all safety procedures.

About the presenters

Mike Marvel, Ph.D. leads the science team at Flinn Scientific, including the development of laboratory manuals, online courseware and professional learning programs. He is a frequent workshop presenter at national and regional science education conferences. Before joining Flinn, Mike spent three years as an assistant professor of chemistry at Aurora University, where he taught inorganic and general chemistry and led an undergraduate research program funded by American Chemical Society Undergraduate Young Investigator and National Science Foundation Transforming Education in Undergraduate Education awards. Mike has authored or co-authored 13 manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals on topics ranging from unique pedagogies in the science lab to the commercial applications of solid-state metal oxides. Mike holds a Ph.D. in inorganic and solid state chemistry from Northwestern University. Mike is passionate about helping schools address the challenges of hybrid learning for science education.

James Palcik, Director of Education, Safety and Compliance at Flinn Scientific, has spent his entire career within the science education market in North America. During that time, he has been conducting science safety PD sessions and making recommendations to schools, school districts, and states and provinces on their safety resources (including manuals, standard operating procedures, PD programming, new teacher induction programs, etc.) as a trusted third-party expert in the field of laboratory safety, regulatory and compliance. James has also advised on product placement and blended-learning approaches to teaching and learning science across the K-12 grades. He uses his educational background as a master science teacher and a health and safety expert, along with his supplier/manufacturer perspective, to bridge these gaps in instruction, compliance and best practices in instructional models. James is passionate about providing students with hands-on, engaging activities in the lab to inspire future innovation.
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This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Flinn Scientific. View the recording of the edLeader Panel here.

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