Science department adjusts to online education

August 21, 2020 — by Andy Chen

With the science department’s emphasis on in-class demonstrations and labs, science teachers have had an especially challenging time adjusting to online education.

This semester, the science department has generally decided to use a flipped classroom style of teaching, which, according to Physics teacher Kirk Davis, means that students will watch pre-recorded video lectures outside of class to prepare for their 75-minute class periods. During class, students will engage in more interactive opportunities, including answering warm-up questions, discussing previous lectures or working in groups on assignments.

“Essentially, all transfer of information is going to be asynchronous,” Davis said. “Then, when students come into the synchronous session, I’ll say: ‘OK, you guys, you did these problem sets. I want everybody to go to your breakout room, discuss number 14 amongst yourselves and then come back and let’s talk about it.’”

According to science teacher Matthew Welander, teachers worked hard over the summer to create new lesson plans and activities because having a flipped classroom increases engagement among students, which encourages students to turn their cameras on and authenticates the feeling of an actual classroom. During last semester’s transition to online learning, the administration encouraged teachers to prioritize accessibility by making their courses as asynchronous as possible, so students who weren’t able to join a Zoom class could still learn and complete assignments. What teachers learned, however, was that this approach ultimately made synchronous class time feel unnecessary — several students even stopped engaging with the course altogether. 

“Synchronous class time needs to have meaningful activities for students, as opposed to just doing a check-in, answering questions or having students listen to us lecture,” Welander said.

An example of one of these meaningful activities would be an assigned lab, said Chemistry Honors teacher Kathryn Nakamatsu. Although replicating the normal lab experience online is difficult, if not impossible, most science teachers plan to continue supplementing student learning through labs.

Since his students lack access to the facilities and equipment required for most labs, Welander will record himself collecting the data for the lab and have students complete a write-up with that information, or he’ll have students run an online simulation.

In addition to these virtual labs, Davis and Nakamatsu plan to assign at-home labs, which they found to be particularly effective last semester. For Nakamatsu, who previously assigned a lab in which students used common household ingredients to make ice cream, at-home labs provide a way to assess students and add something fun to their learning experience. 

Another difficult challenge in remote learning is traditional testing. Most science teachers say they have decreased the number of large tests in favor of smaller quizzes, which Nakamatsu feels will result in a timelier, more accurate measure of a student’s performance. 

“We’ll do our best to be fair to students,” Nakamatsu said. “We’re going to try to do a lot more formative assessments, which include warm-ups and Kahoot activities — things that aren’t graded — so that students learn from their mistakes before it counts for a grade.”

With the obstacle of working and communicating online, the science department has had to discuss the possibility of cutting material from the curriculum in order to keep students on pace. While this affects teachers who instruct regular or honors classes, like Davis and Nakamatsu, AP classes must still cover everything tested on the AP exams. 

Since the College Board hasn’t specified any changes to the content on the 2020-2021 AP tests, learning the entire curriculum is likely to be more difficult than usual for students in AP classes. Because the online schedule has fewer class periods than normal, the pacing of AP classes may end up feeling more rushed. 

Still, grades may not necessarily reflect this increase in difficulty as teachers focus instead on “rewarding student effort and engagement,” Welander said. He lowered the weight of assessments in his class, as did Nakamatsu, who changed the weighting of tests and quizzes from a combined 65 percent to a combined 55 percent. She allocated the remaining 10 percent to homework, classwork, labs and projects.

Despite the many difficulties, adjusting to online education may ultimately benefit both students and teachers in the long run, Davis said.

“This is obviously a less-than-ideal situation, but frankly, it’s really good practice for the real world because rarely is anything in the real world just linear,” Davis said. “I’ve been learning how to use some tools that we can use when we get back in the classroom, and hopefully I’ll be a better teacher because of it. As long as we go in with a positive attitude, we’re not just going to get through this — we’re going to get something out of it.”


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