Sixth grade students at LA Unified show their findings on Zoom after a hands-on science lesson led by an instructor at the Discovery Cube Children’s Museum.

Sixth grade students at LA Unified show their findings on Zoom after a hands-on science lesson led by an instructor at the Discovery Cube Children’s Museum.

Field trips and hands-on lessons are an integral part of science classes at K-12 – at least they should take place during normal times. But they practically disappeared this school year because students are studying from home.

Now that California is seeing another surge in the coronavirus and distance learning continues for the vast majority of students, scientists and museum guides are trying to fill the void and are heading to Zoom to meet students at home.

Teachers have come up with creative solutions to get students to sign up and think and experiment scientifically this school year when the majority of students in California attend at least part of their classes remotely and do not have access to the laboratory equipment or other scientific aids normally available on school premises.

And while some districts, like Plumas Unified in Northern California, have introduced outdoor education as an alternative to online learning, forest fires and recent increases in coronavirus cases and hospital stays have hampered those efforts.

One successful strategy pursued by a handful of school districts has been to bring in outside experts to teach topics ranging from aerospace engineering to agricultural science. Sometimes individual teachers invite experts to visit their students virtually, while other districts like Oakland Unified take broader approaches to coordinate visits from teachers who show interest.

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In Los Angeles Unified, California’s largest school district, district officials launched a pilot this summer in which educators from science museums across Southern California offered students virtual after-school enrichment activities in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

When it became clear that Los Angeles schools would not be returning to face-to-face tuition in the fall, the district leaders decided to move the program over to the normal school day.

Now every fifth grader in LA Unified’s Local District Central – approximately 8,000 students – receives a virtual visit from local scientists on Wednesday through a program called the Season of STEM, taking them through a lesson and activity with simple materials speak at home. LA Unified is divided into six local districts, and Local District Central includes parishes from Downtown Los Angeles to Eagle Rock.

The program encompasses 26 different STEM organizations, which alternately lead an hour-long lesson every Wednesday for around 230 fifth grade classes. On Fridays, the teachers and their students deepen this week’s topic. And after three weeks another organization comes in and the cycle repeats itself.

“It’s difficult to know what materials students have at home when planning classes and experiments,” said Jessica Polo, a fifth-grade teacher at Trinity Street Elementary in Los Angeles who hosted STEM classes during the season . For them, the guest speakers were a welcome relief in what was already a stressful year of lesson planning.

“They are very competent in these specific areas,” said Polo. “I don’t know if I had the same knowledge about all of these subjects.”

One Wednesday, two educators from the Discovery Cube, a children’s science museum north of Burbank, had a discussion on bird adaptation and evolution with Polo’s students, who were all at home and studying from afar. After students provided some vocabulary and discussed why different species of birds have different characteristics, the Discovery Cube instructors led students in a hands-on activity to test different beak shapes at home.

An educator from the Discovery Cube guides students through an activity involving household items.

“Which special adaptations or properties are different?” Devon Ohlwiler, the Discovery Cube instructor, asked the students how they were shown pictures of different species of birds. The students interfered with answers, and Ohlwiler asked the students to think about why these differences might exist. The students shared their guesses, and eventually concluded that each species evolved differently to survive and eat certain foods in their unique environment.

To reinforce the idea, the students gathered supplies such as spoons, chopsticks, and clothespins to pick up other items such as cereal, rice, or pieces of board game. Then they shared via Zoom how different shapes and surfaces of the tools can make picking up different objects easier or more difficult. This shows how bird’s beaks have adapted to different eating habits.

Trinity Street Elementary School students practice picking up household items with small tools to determine which surfaces and sizes are most effective.

Fifth grader Ethan Arriola shows how many pearls he could pick up with a pair of tweezers that represent a long beak.

“I used tongs and I can pick up two items at the same time,” Ethan Arriola, who is attending Trinity Street Elementary, told the class. “This is how a long beak can store more things while hunting for more food.”

Other classes have given students a glimpse into environments and scientific phenomena that occur near where they live. For example, instructors from the LA Maritime Institute, Emerald Bay Outdoor Academy, and USC Sea Grant, a program at the University of Southern California that focused on oceans and the communities around them, started a travel series for the STEM season in the the instructors gave live classes outdoors. Classes took place along the southern California coast, from San Pedro Bay in Long Beach to Santa Monica Bay further north.

It wasn’t easy – or cheap – to get partners together and figure out how to use the district’s distance learning curriculum. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a major proponent of STEM education in Los Angeles, donated $ 350,000 for after-school classes last summer and gave partner organizations a total of $ 1.1 million in the fall for the STEM Seasonal program.

Like many districts across the country, Los Angeles Unified has difficulty navigating distance learning when some students do not have permanent access to the Internet at home, need to share a computer, or their parents work and cannot be around to do schoolwork to help out during the day.

Despite all of the challenges of virtual learning, online classrooms have created an unexpected opportunity for experts to connect with students in ways they may not be able to do in a traditional school year, said Ben Dickow, president of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. through the Space Museum in Downey City, which offers STEM classes as part of the program.

“If this were not during the Covid period and we brought this idea in, we would have to orientate ourselves more towards teaching,” said Dickow. With virtual learning, students can practice standards-based science at home or in their back yard, or get an inside look at scientists in their field. “You can do standards-based science but you don’t have to be in the classroom,” he said.

His organization and others involved in the STEM season teamed up with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last year to expand STEM education efforts across the city. The intention was to offer students enriched science learning experiences, such as extracurricular programs, but after the success over the summer, evolved into a distance learning classroom activity.

“It’s no secret that there is a general deficit in STEM education, especially in elementary schools, as teachers are often not trained in it,” said Dickow, referring to the fact that elementary school teachers often have general education qualifications rather than a specific subject Certificate in math or science.

Recently, Polo, the teacher at Trinity Street Elementary, began linking science classes with other subjects such as social studies and English-language arts, such as a recent series on trees and agriculture by the environmental nonprofit TreePeople.

“In the social sciences, my students are finishing a project on Indians and agriculture that is really related to our science class,” said Polo, who recently gave her students seeds and planters to practice growing plants from home that they give her point to zoom. “It reinforces what I teach.”

Dickow of the Columbia Memorial Science Center jokes, “Everyone’s building the airplane in the air.” However, he and other program participants hope the new partnerships will last beyond the pandemic when students are back in school.

“We have had great feedback from teachers and it has been very encouraging to see the local STEM community come together. And it’s not just an answer to Covid, ”he said. “We want to continue this work together in the future.”

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