Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Challenges, Curiosity, Creativity, & Community’ in the Online Science Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 11, 2020 12 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question is:

What does science instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

In Part One, Tara C. Dale, Mandi S. White, Justin Lopez-Cardoze, and Ross Cooper share their experiences.

Today, Camie Walker, Patrick Brown, Margaret (Peggy) Harte, and Dr. Erin Bridges Bird contribute their thoughts.

The “5C’s” of pandemic science classes

Camie Walker is a veteran elementary science teacher, facilitator for science methods courses for University of Phoenix, an EiE advocate, and a consultant for strength-based education society. Camie can be reached at camie.walker@gmail.com or on twitter @WalkerCamie:

We all know about the 5E’s of instruction. For our pandemic science classes, may I focus instead on the 5C’s.

Confronting challenges with curiosity, creativity, and community.

The challenge of teaching is minor compared to the struggles many students face learning from home. Now more than ever, our students need to feel safe. While we can’t control all elements by focusing on Science and Engineering Practices (SEP) and human impacts, we CAN create an environment for success.


  • Curriculum should be based on student “wonderings.” The first tenet in “science practices” states students should ASK questions. Find out what your students want to know, then develop investigations focusing on these wonderings. Padlet is an excellent forum for asking questions, but the comment section in a Google Classroom can be just as effective. NEVER turn off comments in Google Streaming. Use this area to model how to ask questions and help one another to make connections.

  • Choose a question that most are wondering about. Don’t stray away from the hard questions. My students wanted to know more about viruses, surprise, surprise!


  • Creativity creates equity! Allow students choice in how they develop and convey their information. Focus on student strengths. Do they enjoy drawing, acting, singing, or writing? Allow multiple choices for how students can share their work.

  • Create engineering challenges and science investigations that will allow flexibility in needed supplies. Use “found” objects. A model can be an elaborate 3D rendering or a drawing on paper. Never assume a student has specific supplies unless you have provided them.


  • Forming a classroom community is essential. Interact with your students on a daily basis if possible. Allow time in Google Chat or Zoom where they can talk to one another for a few minutes after the lesson. Have silly themes such as “Bring a pet to class day,” (coupled with a lesson on animal traits!) Developing relationships has never been so critical.

  • If possible, team with another teacher and “share” students. Then collaborate on ways you can help meet their needs. Stagger class times to allow both of you a break in instruction. Self care is a necessary good teaching practice.

  • Partner with existing museums to help foster learning. For example, in finding ways to help my students learn about viruses, I modified information from Engineering is Elementary’s unit “Outbreak Alert, Engineering a Pandemic Response.” Planning resources were provided on the website EiE.org. We researched “what is a virus,” creating models to show our understanding. We learned about how scientists and engineers are working together to develop antibodies. We also met with scientists from the museum in a webinar to learn more about human impacts.

  • Students need to become a part of the teaching/learning community:

In our discussion of human impacts, students recognized they have the power to keep safe by washing hands, wearing masks, and not touching their face. They created public-service messages on Flipgrid, focusing on ways they could help others who were learning at home. I have included a link to one student’s message. Notice how the public-service message is not “scientific” in nature but an honest attempt at helping another student.This is more than an integration of language arts and science. It is building a foundation of understanding that they are a part of the global community. Through communication, they can have an impact for good.

Remember, no video, hyper link, or text can take the place of teacher/student interaction. Find a way to make connections. Learn with and from them! Allowing students to take the lead in confronting challenges with curiosity and creativity will help build a global community of caring, compassionate critical thinkers who will have a desire to work together to solve the problems of this world. Isn’t that what science is all about?

Applying the NGSS in Distance Learning Environments

Patrick Brown is the executive director of STEM for the Fort Zumwalt school district in St. Charles, Mo., and the author of the NSTA bestseller Instructional Sequence Matters:

The current situation that many school districts face about how to best prepare students in distance learning environments raises many questions for teachers and curriculum specialists alike. The NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) focus on three-dimensional learning—disciplinary content (DCIs), science and engineering practices (SEPs), and cross-cutting concepts (CCCs). The unique combination of these dimensions promotes student’s development of conceptual understanding, but how can teachers engage students in the practices and cross-cutting concepts to learn content in distance learning environments?

Using an explore-before-explain sequence helps teachers find a focus for curriculum planning and ensures that students engage in types of experiences advocated by the NGSS. Explore-before-explain is about using purposeful instructional sequences to develop a student’s conceptual understanding. The process starts by eliciting student’s ideas about scientific phenomena. This critical step engages student’s thoughts and sets the context for learning. Resources and strategies for engaging and obtaining students’ ideas and experiences are abundant. Teachers can use NSTA resources such as Keeley and colleague’s formative-assessment probes to assess students’ prior experiences (or they can create their own). Also, teachers can ask students to make a prediction about demonstrations and engage students in problem-solving scenarios and brainstorm means to address them.

Next, teachers can think of ways students can have data-based experiences that serve as evidence for scientific claims. Explorations that produce data at home may seem to be the biggest challenge. Some hands-on investigations can be creatively designed to use household items (see Distance Learning in Action Below). For other science topics, simulations (see PhET link below) and online videos are becoming increasingly abundant. The exploration step is vital and should come before explaining content for essential reasons. Student-constructed knowledge from explorations serve as the core of their conceptual understanding of science and the hook for sophisticated learning throughout the lesson. From an NGSS perspective, student evidence-based claims require the integration of SEPs, CCCs, and DCIs, so they generate an evidence-based claim

Finally, teachers can include explaining activities so students develop an understanding of the scientific principles and underlying reasoning for why the evidence they found supports their claims. Explanatory experiences can consist of investigations using simulations (for example, PhET). They can also include readings from the textbook, discussions with the teacher, and lectures.

Distance-Learning in Action

If you are curious how explore-before-explain teaching plays out in at-home settings, below is a model lesson for investigating “why temperatures change” to see how assessment probes can seamlessly translate into firsthand experiences with data and evidence at home. Students’ experiences allow them to construct evidence-based claims.

See the model lesson here.


In times where instructional minutes at home are being inspected and pored over, parents are taking on new roles as teachers, educators benefit from specific guidance on how to provide the best distance learning possible. Using an explore-before-explain lesson-planning approach provides guidance for those of us who are not sure where to start and to find lesson-planning focus. Using tried-and-true curriculum-development models takes out some of the guesswork for how to design distance learning to maximizing students learning during their time away from the in-person science classroom.

More to explore:



Doing science

Margaret (Peggy) Harte has been a teacher for over 20 years. She also currently works as an innovation fellow at the Center for Community and Citizen Science, a research center at the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Erin Bridges Bird is a former high school science teacher and is currently a science education researcher at the University of California, Davis:

In the age of coronavirus, teachers and parents may find themselves grateful for, or completely overwhelmed by, an abundance of resources available for remote science instruction. For instance, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is now offering free membership to access hands-on science activities and has made its eBook collection available to all. Within all these resources, whether at home or in the classroom, and whether accessing hands-on or virtual activities, learning science requires deep engagement and inquiry—but what does this look like during a pandemic and distance learning?

As roles of teachers, parents, and students shift, it is clear that what science instruction looks like will largely be determined by the kind of support teachers give to at-home learning. By conversing with teachers and parents alike, we have learned that certain science instructional tools and approaches are more successful than others for distance learning. However, we also identified discernable gaps in support systems for all students to productively engage in science learning during shelter in place.

Distance learning requires that students’ ideas and interests are incorporated into lessons in ways that may not have been as imperative in the classroom. Students’ distance learning experience may not include the support of parents and guardians, requiring students to motivate and monitor their own learning. Therefore, many teachers are focusing on phenomena-based instruction, in which an observable natural event—within or near the home—is used to provoke student inquiry. Accordingly, students’ firsthand observations and questions become core to their scientific process.

There are multiple ways teachers can introduce students to phenomena and account for resource gaps. Investigations can include outdoor observations (e.g., conducting citizen-science activities with iNaturalist from the California Academy of Science’s curriculum), hands-on mini-experiments (e.g., conducting small physics, chemistry, or biology activities available through NSTA), or online videos, including accessing webcams, depending on students’ available resources. Teachers can use student questions as a driving instructional force by making their uncertainties the “connection-points” to subsequent lessons including readings, follow-up experiments, or videos. In this way, teachers can move beyond “one off” lessons that keep students busy but rarely provide in-depth science learning.

Similarly, scientific notebooks are an important way for students to keep track of their learning, write down their discoveries, and draw iterative models of sense making. If images from their notebook are then shared with their teachers, they could be used to provide feedback and modify subsequent lessons. In addition to creating a resource for students to reference previous lessons, scientific notebooks can also help students build routine into their learning day. Many available lesson sequences, such as the Cornell Science and Nature Activity for Cooped up Kids and their citizen-science project eBird, encourages the use of scientific notebooks. Other platforms such as the California Academy of Sciences’ Science Notebook Corner provide instruction on how to set up a new notebook (important as many students likely left their science notebooks behind in their classrooms).

Phenomena-based units focused on a phenomenon that can be observed in or near home, and science notebooks can provide the basis for these deep ways of learning science; however, engaging students in discourse remains a challenge. Teachers can try giving parents sentence frames and background science information that will bolster their own understanding. Then, in this way, parents can use the frames to drive their students’ inquiry, avoid directly answering their students’ questions, and leave open a space for their students’ own discoveries. However, we need to think creatively about how to promote student scientific discourse in safe and productive ways beyond their home space and with their classmates, because, ultimately, to learn science is to do it, read it, write it, draw it, and talk about it.

Thanks to Camie, Patrick, Margaret, and Erin for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder, you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.