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6 Big Ideas About Teaching Science Online – Your Students Will Thank You

Teaching science online is not just making your activities digital. Successful online, synchronous, asynchronous, hyflex science classrooms do things differently.
6 Big Ideas About Teaching Science Online – Your Students Will Thank You

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Join Alice Keeler and Jim Vanides on Monday July 26th at 2pm for a conversation around how to make teaching science online awesome!

Guest Blog Post By Jim Vanides

We all want our students to be engaged in their learning, and learning science is no exception. Sparking curiosity, learning to ask great questions, and experiencing scientific collaboration are some of the hallmarks of an effective and memorable science learning experience –

all of which are possible when we teach science online.

Learning to teach online in general is an iterative experience, where you may discover that a great lesson plan “on-ground” wasn’t so great online after all. Thankfully there are some “big ideas” about teaching science online that can help guide the way. To begin, let’s clarify what it means to be “online”.

BIG IDEA #1 – A-synchronous doesn’t have to mean A-lone

Lately I’ve been reading blog posts describing only two types of online, synchronous (online at the same moment) and asynchronous, defined as “self-paced, at your own time”. This narrow view of online learning limits what’s possible and worse, can limit the potential value of online learning. I find it more helpful to think in terms of THREE online modalities, which can be mixed and matched to create powerful learning experiences:

  • Synchronous Meetings and Collaboration
  • Asynchronous Self-Study
  • Asynchronous Collaboration

SYNCHRONOUS simply means that everyone is “together” (online) at the same moment in time. The most common example is a group meeting with webcams and audio (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, …the list goes on). Tools that support break-out rooms (like Zoom), are particularly helpful so you can minimize “sage on the stage syndrome”, and students can effectively work together (think pair-and-share to compare lab results, for example).

But there are other forms of synchronous engagement that don’t involve a webcam. For example:

  • Collaboratively building a virtual ecosystem in Minecraft
  • Creating and editing a science research report in real-time using Google Docs
  • Brainstorming (or any activity that uses sticky notes!) in Google Jamboard or Miro
  • Analyzing shared data together using Google Sheets
  • Class discussions with guest experts from your community – or around the world
  • Hosting a school-wide science fair where everyone attends as avatars in a virtual world using Gather

ASYNCHRONOUS SELF-STUDY encompasses all the experiences students can have online but on their own, at a time suitable to them. The learning can be formal and scheduled, like assigned homework, or informal and ad-hoc. For example:

  • Adding entries to your science notebook
  • Reading about science and scientists
  • Watching videos (flipped classroom presentations or demonstrations, or recorded interviews with real scientists)
  • Designing and conducting investigations at home

ASYNCHRONOUS COLLABORATION is the third, and lately forgotten, online mode. This is a powerful way to bring students together without the timing constraints of synchronous class-time. This is how I’ve been teaching teachers online for Montana State University’s MSSE program. Activities in this mode can include:

  • Facilitated group discussions prompted by readings or investigations; the discussions extend over several days, so there is plenty of time for everyone to participate, and often the discussions go much deeper than synchronous discussions (in-class or online). Discussion posts can be text-only, text and images, or can be video-based using tools like Flipgrid
  • Peer feedback on papers, presentations, or science posters (easily accomplished using the “comment” features in Google Docs, for example)
  • Deep discussions about experimental results
  • Group-generated concept maps that provide a platform for “making sense” – and provide valuable formative feedback about misconceptions or pre-conceptions.

BIG IDEA #2 – Everything you’ve learned about learning still applies

Whether you’re face-to-face in a classroom, “face”-to-face with a webcam, or hiding your face in an online discussion board, everything we know from the learning sciences still applies – learning is socially situated (that is, there’s always a human social context for learning), and great teaching is more than the distribution of information.

So revisit those examples of extraordinary learning you’ve experienced with your students; dust off your Ed School textbooks about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and your dog-eared copy of “How People Learn”. It all still applies – and will serve as your launchpad for developing some extraordinary online learning experiences for your students.

BIG IDEA #3 – Don’t force a square lesson plan into a round online modality

[tweet]Save yourself from endless hours of frustration and heartache by admitting up front that lesson plans that worked great in your on-ground classroom will not work the same, if even at all, when you’re teaching online.[/tweet]

This means that how you interact with your students, how you collect formative feedback real-time to gage what they know and don’t know, and how you facilitate students as they “do science” will be different – sometimes a little, sometimes entirely. But all is not lost if you explore the advantages of each of the three online modalities and take advantage of some of the wonderful online tools and resources that exist.

BIG IDEA #4 – Simulations and virtual labs keep getting better!

Sure – there’s nothing quite like nearly burning yourself on a bunsen burner or enjoying the smell of a formaldehyde-preserved specimen, but when you can’t provide these time-honored experiences on-ground, there are some amazing online experiences that can help your students learn the important concepts. It also gives you an opportunity to discuss with them the difference between a perfect simulation and the experimental-error-prone world of doing hands-on science. What I like the most is that these tools give students the opportunity to iterate, over and over – and maybe even explore phenomena that your on-ground classroom can’t provide.

A very incomplete set of examples are below (note – these are not paid endorsements; I simply find them to be fascinating!):

  • Phet Simulations from the University of Colorado Boulder. They are free, have been used by millions of students, and can lead to some important discussions (synch or asynch)

  • Beyond Labz is a commercial product, but teachers can contact doug@beyondlabz.com to get a 30 day trial. They have many “how to use it videos” in a variety of subject areas. For example, you’ll get a good idea of what the learning experience is like by skimming through the video about using  a lab bench for titration:
    YouTube video

What can this look like for even larger school districts? Stuart Loebl and his colleague Nancy Wright from Hayward Unified School District created their own kit program for over 5,000 students who were learning at home. You can read more by visiting their Science Kit Program Homepage and Lesson Library.

BIG IDEA #6: Don’t just replicate your on-ground class – aim for something new and extraordinary!

Whether you’re teaching science entirely online, hybrid/hyflex, or entirely on-ground, there are many opportunities for creating exciting, memorable, and effective science learning experiences for your students. Online experiences can complement your on-ground class – or in some cases, provide unique experiences that would not otherwise be possible!

The ideas above are just the beginning! If you have exciting examples of your own, please share them in the comments. You are also invited to join us for an online Q&A on Monday July 26th, 2021 at 2pm Pacific. – register today and join the conversation!


Jim Vanides is an instructor for Montana State University where he teaches teachers online for the Masters of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the California Science Project, an initiative of the University of California, and serves as an advisor to the California STEM Network. Twitter: @jgvanides

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