Science Teaching and Learning Found to Fall Off in Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 12, 2021 5 min read
Ahasbai Guerrero studies shadows in Gennifer Caven's 3rd grade classroom at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma, Calif. San Francisco's Exploratorium developed an inquiry-based curriculum that blends English and science lessons.
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Students are struggling to learn science during the pandemic, even as they find it increasingly interesting and relevant to their lives, according to new research highlighted at the annual American Educational Research Association conference.

“We just heard so many examples of how complex all of this was, with teachers needing to create materials but then not being allowed to teach new content, or being concerned that their work didn’t align with next-gen science standards—a lot of adjustments that actually made the work of teaching especially challenging,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the president of the University of Maine and a former head of the National Science Foundation’s education directorate, in a symposium on science education. “In addition to all of the pressure on teachers to teach in multiple modes, there was a need for extreme differentiation given the circumstances that each child faced in their homes and in their families.”

By the summer following the pandemic, more than a third of high school students said they were “moderately” or “extremely” worried that they will not be able to complete their STEM courses, according to an analysis of data from AmeriSpeak, an ongoing nationally representative survey of about 2,000 students ages 13-17.

Debbie Kim, a senior research scientist at NORC (the National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, found that students in poverty bore the brunt of the difficulty. About 40 percent of low-income students said they were unprepared to start classes in fall 2020, compared to 27 percent of high-income students. Of the students who had been enrolled in Advanced Placement STEM courses before the pandemic began, half said they were unable to complete their courses and take the exams in biology, chemistry, and physics. But there was an income gap here, too: 72 percent of low-income students didn’t complete their AP physics courses and 63 percent missed AP calculus. Among high-income students, only 29 percent missed physics and 21 percent missed calculus.

Teachers: Online ‘not conducive to learning’

In a separate study, WestEd researchers and Meghan Macias, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California - Santa Barbara, already had been tracking how 100 middle school science teachers in California were implementing the Next-Generation Science Standards since 2018. When schools closed last March, the researchers reached out to their existing teachers as well as nearly 350 middle school science teachers in 25 states to get a pulse on pandemic-era STEM instruction.

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Some students benefited from the increased flexibility and agency they were able to exert around their own learning as a result of the shift to remote instruction, and some teachers said they and their students are beginning to become more comfortable with using technology through distance learning. Nearly a third of the teachers reported that remote instruction has helped their students take more ownership of science projects in class.

But the majority of science teachers reported struggling to include investigations and hands-on learning for students on remote platforms, and considered the online format “not conducive to learning,” said Macias, noting it was the most common challenge the teachers cited, along with difficulties in getting students to engage in collaboration and discussions online.

While student engagement has improved since last spring, she said, teachers say it continues to be a concern.

“While teachers were able to facilitate some collaboration and discussion with students online, many teachers found it difficult, less educative, and less meaningful or authentic for students,” Macias said. “That may have disengaged students. And many felt that science was not a priority for instruction during the pandemic and that many education leaders were prioritizing ‘core subjects’ like math and [language arts].”

Troy Sadler, a professor of experiential learning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, experienced that personally. His Responding to an Emerging Epidemic through Science Education, or (REESE) project, worked with eight high school science teachers across three school districts to create COVID-19-related curriculum materials for science teachers to help explain the concepts to their students. While all of the teachers’ districts initially were excited about the program, none of them used it once it was developed, in part because of the need for focusing on remediation in math and reading.

That may leave it to the students themselves to press for science information about the pandemic, according to a separate survey this summer by Horizon Research, based on 2,300 teachers. Teachers reported that 80 percent of elementary students and nearly 90 percent of middle and high school students started asking for information about COVID-19 before schools closed, and that prompted teachers to develop lessons. Just under 80 percent of science teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels said they taught stand-alone lessons about COVID-19. More than 9 in 10 science teachers said they taught students ways to keep from transmitting the virus, but a large majority at all grade levels also taught more about the basic science, such as the difference between the virus itself and the disease.

However, the overwhelming majority of teachers said they made their own lessons, in part from material culled from the internet and less than a quarter of teachers said they had access to commercially published or state-, county-, or district-developed science kits.

“I was struck by [the pandemic] as an opportunity for science education and mathematics education to be in the forefront … but it comes with especially challenging issues for which teachers probably are not fully prepared,” Mundy said. “Science is evolving rapidly in this, so the chance to watch science unfold from a curricular perspective is quite fascinating. Hopefully, that helps us see more interest in STEM careers as a result of the role that science and mathematics, both are playing in the pandemic.”

She noted that the rising interest in classrooms also has raised the issue of “whether we are actually preparing science and math teachers adequately to handle issue-based teaching and learning.”

But researchers across projects agreed that science teachers need more training in how to work with students online, use technology tools, and help students engage.

“The current emphasis on content dimensions of the current standards that we have, along with how we’re thinking about teacher education, teacher preparation, in-service education, makes it really challenging to pivot when we get to moments like this when we as a field really do need to pivot and adjust to this international crisis,"Sadler said. “I don’t think that we’re well-suited to that.”


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