Science

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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Future of Work Q&A How to Get More Students of Color Into STEM: Tackle Bias, Expand Resources
Mathematician and former National Football League player John Urschel on what it will take to see more students of color in STEM careers.<br/><br/>
5 min read

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.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science Here's How to Make Science More Relevant for Students of Color
Students get more out of science class, these teachers say, when the lessons are linked to their own lives and communities.
5 min read
Chemistry teacher Nina Hike poses for a portrait in her classroom at George Westinghouse College Prep on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Chicago, IL. Through her curriculum, Hike highlights scientific discoveries by women and people of color, and also teaches students about environmental racism.
Chemistry teacher Nina Hike poses for a portrait in her classroom at George Westinghouse College Prep on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Chicago, IL. Through her curriculum, Hike highlights scientific discoveries by women and people of color, and also teaches students about environmental racism.
Taylor Glascock for Education Week
Science COVID-19 Is a Science Lesson Waiting to Happen
Teachers have more information about the virus now than in March 2020, but barriers remain to focusing on the pandemic in class.
8 min read
Conceptual illustration of sectioned off people studying a Covid-19 Virus
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Jorm Sangsorn/iStock
Science Finding Hope in the Face of Climate Change: Why Some Teachers Focus on Solutions
Learning about climate change can make students feel anxious or hopeless. A solution-focused teaching approach gives them a reason for hope.
11 min read
Conceptual illustration of hand reaching into an atom and picking the planet earth
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Frances Coch/iStock
Science 5 Ways to Teach Climate Change and COVID-19 During Polarized Times
Rampant misinformation and politics have made science teachers' jobs harder. Teachers share five strategies to teach sensitive topics.
9 min read
Linda Rost, a finalist for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year and a high school science teacher, teaches at Baker High School in Baker, Mont. on Nov. 3, 2021.
Linda Rost teaches a science class at Baker High School in Baker, Mont., earlier this month. She has received some pushback for teaching about COVID-19.
Leslie Bohle for Education Week