Teaching Science in 2020: 10 Things You Need to Know

Educators shared their candid takeaways on teaching science in the time of COVID at our Science Online 2020 conference. If you missed the live event, you can watch the recorded sessions on demand.  

10 common themes emerged as true about teaching science in 2020:

1. You were forced to become a learning technology expert – and have the gray hair to prove it

Before the pandemic, instructors who used virtual learning technologies had made the intentional choice to adopt them. Following the COVID outbreak, others had to make a sudden and unplanned adoption. 

“In just a few weeks, we had to pivot. Everything we used to do face to face was brought into an online environment,” said Moustapha Diack, Professor of Science and Math Education at Southern University. “COVID disrupted the technology-adoption lifecycle.”

Instructors at Science Online 2020 described this as taking a “crash course” in remote learning and “a master’s in technology”. 

“We have a whole generation of educators around the world who have been thrown into the deep end of the pool on technology,” said Sal Khan, Founder of Khan Academy, in his plenary session “A Discussion with Sal Khan”.  

“It’s very uncomfortable in the short term, but in the long term it’s going to lower the activation energy for smart uses of technology and hopefully time-saving uses of technology for teachers and for parents and for students,” he said.   

Now virtually all teachers have the experience and familiarity to make informed choices about instructional technology in the future.

“The pandemic pushed us to use online tools that were previously unused or underutilized,” said Jennifer Bobenko, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. “Online learning is here to stay.”

Ali Ahrabi, Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Physiology at Middlesex Community College, suggested that leaders of educational institutions should take a more proactive approach to funding online learning technologies. “When we are forced, we have to do it. But why not be prepared ahead of time? We need to evolve,” he said.

2. You want proven remote learning tips you can use right away

Fortunately, you have these tips from Meshagae Hunte-Brown, Biology Professor at Drexel University. Hunte-Brown described how to incorporate Labster in a virtual science course in her presentation “Surviving and Thriving in the New Learning Environment”

  • Start with your syllabus: “Set expectations and clearly outline them in the syllabus,” said Meshagae Hunte-Brown.  “Learning objectives in the syllabus should connect the labs to the lecture topics. Begin by thinking about what you want your students to learn. Is it hypothesis development? Is it experimental design? Do they need to know a particular protocol? Do you want them to know how to manage data? Do you want them to be able to predict results from data? These are things we teach through labs that aren’t necessarily tied to being in a lab setting.”  
Portrait of Meshagae Hunte-Brown
  • Communication is key: “Set up a communication plan with ways to contact you and virtual office hours. Let them know when they will get a response to their messages,” said Hunte-Brown.  
  • Use a Grading Rubric: “Design a rubric so they can see that they have the power to get the success they desire in the class.” 
  • Set expectations for study: “Let them know they need to map out their time and create a physical space to study.”
  • Group students together: “Help students make connections. Provide them with Zoom breakout rooms and shuffle them. Let them work through labs together.”
  • Use lab reports to connect labs to lectures: “Ask your students to write something to connect the lab activity to the rest of the course and the rest of their learning,” said Hunte-Brown. “What was the purpose of this lab? What was the background information? What did you need to know in order to do well and get the answers correct? What kinds of data did you collect? How were the data analyzed? And what was the ultimate conclusion?” 
  • Keep exams open for 24 hours: Concerned about technical difficulties, Hunte-Brown offers a time window, rather than a specific hour, for students to take online tests. “I open my exam period for 24 hours, but once you start it you only have a limited amount of time to complete it. I make my exams on Thursday so I have a workday when I can help students if technical difficulties arise,” she said.  

3. Some of your students still lack broadband access and it’s a problem 

Educators are concerned that students without access are at risk of falling behind. 

“We’ve had lots of challenges with the digital divide. Access to broadband and computers is an issue for many students,” said Leslie Kennedy, Senior Director of Academic Technology Services for the California State University System. 

“Connectivity and access to the internet is one of the major challenges students have had,” said Juliana Kelley, Associate Professor of Biology at Laredo College. About 20% of American students do not have a computer or broadband access at home, according to a 2020 study from the Pew Research Center. Among Hispanic adults such as those who attend Laredo College in Texas, more than 50% say they worry about being able to pay for home broadband service. 

While educators like Kelley are partnering with local governments and nonprofit institutions to find solutions, Sal Khan sees a larger obligation to provide access.

“We really need to make sure that at-home internet access with the proper device, it’s like clean drinking water, it’s like heating, it’s something that just everyone should have. If a house does not have that it is not a suitable place to live.”

Sal Khan, Khan Academy

4. You’re wearing a “counselor hat” along with your face mask 

“You need to communicate a lot because the students are at home and they are worried,” said Anne Nørremølle, Associate Professor in the Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of Copenhagen. “They need you.”

“I’ve had many students email me feeling overwhelmed, being kind of anxious, ‘it’s all piling up on me, I’m trying to deal with work, I’m trying to do schoolwork at the same time, and the emotional level is definitely high,” said Selinda Martinez, Biology Instructor at Laredo College. “It’s almost like I need to put a counselor hat on now and kind of say ‘OK, take a breather, you know, don’t try to do everything at once, plan your time, plan your calendar.’” 

Portrait of Selinda Martinez

Advice for Teachers: “Stop When You Need To”

“All that advice for students? Teachers should take it also. If you want your students to succeed, if you care about them, it will come across,” said Stacia Bowden.

“Don’t forget that what we’re being asked to do right now is impossible,” said Margaret Moore of Friendship Collegiate Academy in her panel discussion “How High School Teachers Can Get Back in the Groove During a Pandemic”. She added, “Have grace with yourself. Be kind. This is not an easy task for anyone. Take a deep breath. Stop when you need to.” 

“We must lead with kindness and patience,” Meshagae Hunte-Brown. “It’s up to us to build up our students, to help them embrace a growth mindset.”

“Some students can feel despair, and our presence can be a significant influence on their state,” said Hunte-Brown. “Let them know you will be flexible and patient with them and with yourself. Ask for their understanding as well if your grades were not on time, if the video didn’t play.”

5. Your administrators have given you more freedom than ever before

Teachers were largely responsible for discovering new educational technologies during COVID, and they enjoyed the trust and freedom their administrators extended. 

“I think COVID is going to provide a pivotal point for higher education where faculty feel more free to try new technologies and new ways of reaching their students than perhaps they didn’t feel as though they could try before,” said Jennifer Bobenko in her panel discussion “How We Can Transform Science Education in a post-COVID World”.  

Without the expectation that solutions have to be perfect or permanent, teachers engaged in a lot of trial and error while looking for new tools. “Sometimes they will work and sometimes they won’t,” Bobenko added. 

Leaders: “Free your teachers up to be innovative”

“I have observed an innovativeness and a creativeness in teachers that I never saw before. And I don’t ever want that to change again,” said administrator Susan P. White, Director of STEM at Friendship Public Charter School. 

“My suggestion to leaders is listen and watch, observe, pay attention, and free your teachers up to be innovative and creative,” said White. 

Portrait of Susan P. White

Moore agreed. “Support your teachers even when what your teachers are asking for is crazy because they know your students and they know what’s best for your students,” she said.

Even good tools can’t guarantee good learning outcomes

While there may be an ever-expanding menu of ed tech tools to choose from, even good tools can’t guarantee good learning outcomes. Bobenko said, “just adding an educational technology doesn’t necessarily improve your course.”

“If I had to pick between an amazing teacher and amazing technology, I would pick the amazing teacher every time,” said Sal Khan, in his plenary session “A Discussion with Sal Khan”. “It should never be technology for technology’s sake, it should always be ‘what is our goal?’ The best tools are amazing human beings, and then after that it could be chalk, it could be a piece of paper, or it could be a piece of software, an on-demand video, or whatever else.” 

6. You’re looking for ways to future-proof your course delivery

Pandemics are unpredictable, no one knows when this one will end or whether another one will arise. 

“We have been working with online tools for quite a long time, and this was really a good thing. Without knowing it, we were actually getting prepared for a coronavirus situation. I will stick to this in the future because you never know what will happen,” said Anne Nørremølle in her presentation “Sharing Access to Science Education Across Europe”. “Doing Labster in groups will be the future for us because it keeps the students active” when they are home, she said. 

Sophia Rahming, Associate Director for Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Florida State University, found that Labster provided continuity for her university when COVID hit. Within just a few weeks, Rahming was able to get 3,000 students up andrunning on Labster “and the students were able to carry on,” she said.

7. You think you will be teaching hybrid when this is all over

Portrait of Leslie Kennedy

In an ideal world, teachers would prefer to combine online tools with face-to-face learning.

“Sometimes we say ‘oh well this is just for online, once we go face to face we’re going to leave it all behind’, but you can’t,” said Selinda Martinez. “One of the things that I’ve been researching is that students tend to learn better when you incorporate both online simulations/virtual labs with a hands on type of experience.”

“We are already planning for the post-pandemic future. We’re emphasizing a hybrid instructional model including more lab simulations, such as what Labster provides, to reinforce the instruction,” said Leslie Kennedy in her panel discussion “How We Can Transform Science Education in a post-COVID World”. 

“Nontraditional students, students who work full-time — and really all students — can benefit from the option to complete their education in an online or hybrid instructional format,” said Kennedy.   

8. You are looking for ways to reduce the knowledge gap

Portrait of Jennifer Bobenko

When students reach high school and college science courses, the differences in their knowledge of science foundations becomes a challenge for the instructor as well as the students. 

“Labster can be a large gain for non-traditional students who have gone to under-resourced schools and don’t have a significant science background. Labster can help to fill in the knowledge gaps,” said Jennifer Bobenko in her panel discussion “How We Can Transform Science Education in a post-COVID World”. 

Labster is based on the principle of mastery learning and allows students to play and replay simulations at their own pace until they succeed.   

Portrait of Sophia Rahming

Low-resourced schools are getting a world-class lab

“Low-resourced schools are getting a world-class lab to come to them,” said Sophia Rahming. They have access to world-class equipment that they would never be able to have given their current situation. Low SES students, first gens, black, brown, all kinds of students, are therefore exposed to what could be for them a career.”  

Felicia Vulcu, Associate Professor, Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, described using a flipped lab approach in her panel discussion “Chemistry & Biology: Two Approaches to Learning”.

Portrait of Felicia Vulcu

During her lectures, Vulcu walks students through the simulations, pointing out the important component of the techniques. “Labster has the technique tied to a story, and storytelling is one of the best ways to teach students,” she said.

“I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m happy every day at my job.”

Felicia Vulcu, McMaster University

“I think the main objective for all our courses is to show students the love we have for science, what it takes to get there, how to be practical about it, and at the end of the day, hope that they get a career they love,” said Vulcu.

9. Your students need more hands-on lab time so you use Labster as a pre-lab

“Going forward, I’m looking at it as an interactive pre-laboratory. It works, it really does help students absorb the material and as you know, the more they see it, the more they interact with it, the better. That’s how they retain the information,” said Stephanie Dillon, Director of Freshman Chemistry Laboratories at Florida State University.  

Jennifer Bobenko believes using Labster as a pre-lab helps students apply their knowledge. “They’re put into a real-life situation rather than put into a wet lab with no context,” said Bobenko. 

“It’s much quicker and easier, and they can fit a lot more into shorter lab periods,” said Terri Quenzer, Statewide Director, California Community College System. “It’s more efficient because the students have done the simulations so they know what to expect when they get into the lab and do the hands-on part of it.”  

Portrait of Stephanie Dillon

“It cuts down on their stress and it cuts down on my workload”

In her presentation, “Best Practices for Using EdTech in Your Curriculum”, Dillon said that she found using Labster as a pre-laboratory exercise saved lots of time for her students when they were ready to complete labs in-person. “We’d had a hard time with that particular course going over time, where something as simple as making a few buffers to get ready for a lab, they were spending three hours … which was ridiculous,” she said. “We added the Labster [simulation] on making solutions and acid-based buffers and the next thing we know they’re getting out of there in an hour and a half!”

“The learning in the Labster pre-lab made life so much easier for me, and it also makes it easier for them. It cuts down on their stress and it cuts down on my workload. This is working,” said Stephanie Dillon. 

10. You can replace face-to-face labs with Labster (in some situations) 

Biology Professor Mark Mort and his colleagues at the University of Kansas recently developed a fully online biology course that uses Labster simulations in place of face-to-face labs together with at-home assignments that complement the simulations. One of Mort’s objectives was to develop an inclusive course that could be accessible by any student regardless of physical ability or location. 

For students who are not science majors (such as health science majors), Mort advises using Labster in place of face-to-face labs in his panel discussion “Access, Inclusivity, and Equity in the Virtual Science Classroom.”

“I think it’s safe to say students who are science majors need hands on experience. You have to touch a pipette, you have to load a gel, extract DNA. Does a non major student have to hold a pipette? I would argue no,” said Mort. “I would much sooner have them understand at a deeper level the competencies behind why science works.”      

Portrait of Mark Mort

“Biology is actually cool”

“The feedback from students has been uniformly very positive,” said Mort. “ We thought ‘this is actually a better experience across the board for everybody, so let’s just take the whole thing online’,” said Mort. 

“So moving forward, we are not going to have in person non majors biology labs again,” he said.  The hands-on, instructor-led, face-to-face labs will be offered for students who become more interested and choose to take advanced level courses or major in biology.  

“I think we will eventually start seeing non majors say “biology is actually cool” and we’ll start pulling more students into STEM because of how engaging the simulations are.”  

Mark Mort, University of Kansas

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