Tips for Teaching STEM Education Virtually and at Home

Morgan Kueter’s biological sciences classes at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, looked like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past year, her district oscillated between all-virtual learning and hybrid learning, where students split their time between in-person and virtual classes. 

Moving to virtual and hybrid models, in some cases overnight, has challenged teachers. While students have lost out on school staples like clubs, organizations, sports and more, teachers have been tasked with adjusting all of their lessons to a fluctuating teaching model. 

“Everything that we have used since COVID-19 has had to be at least modified to fit the new system, if not changed entirely,” Kueter said. “We are creating everything from scratch. Most teachers will usually use templates, ideas or portions of assignments that have been created before. With the time we’re given, it’s just really difficult to recreate all of those things.”

On top of lesson planning, Kueter also has to wrestle with the nature of teaching in a STEM subject. In her field of biological sciences, hands-on labs are a critical component of the curriculum. In a hybrid model that provides students limited time in the class to do their work, Kueter has shifted her lessons so that time spent with her is focused as much as possible on labs. 

It’s not an ideal situation, and Kueter recognizes that. But many teachers and parents are learning how to adjust. 

What Can Parents and Teachers Do to Make the Best of Virtual STEM Learning?

Adapting to virtual learning, especially for STEM subjects that demand more interaction in the classroom, is tough for everyone involved. Students are asking more of their parents and teachers in terms of support. Here are some ideas on how to better support STEM learners as they continue to navigate virtual learning. 

Get Feedback from Students

Teachers are experts at managing classroom culture. In the absence of a physical classroom, gauging what’s working and what’s not becomes more difficult. Teachers often don’t have enough time with students to understand what challenges they experience, and virtual learning demands more active outreach.

Kueter encourages her students to “buy-into” the virtual learning process through “student-teacher conferences.” She solicits feedback during these sessions with students and uses that time to address any classroom culture issues a student might experience. Giving students this outlet can help them feel heard in a process they ultimately don’t have control over.

Utilize Time with the Teacher Effectively

With hybrid learning, the time in the classroom with students is valuable. It’s even more critical with STEM subjects.

“STEM lends itself to hands-on learning, and I think we have a bit of a responsibility to maximize that time we have with students,” Kueter said.

She stressed that classroom time should be devoted to lessons that require heavy teacher input, such as labs and demonstrations. Virtual sessions can then be focused on more independent learning or lectures. 

Continue Hands-On Experiments

Depending on the subject and age level, experimentation can be done at home just like in the classroom. Teachers can assign safe experiments that utilize home staples and parents can supervise the experiment with their children. Classics like the baking soda volcano or soda bottle rocket can breathe new life into virtual lessons.

Tap Into the STEM Community

A slower economy means that work may be slow for many other professionals. Students and teachers can capitalize on the opportunity to reach out to professionals who can share their knowledge and connect the lessons being taught in the classroom with real world application. The “nitty-gritty” of the day-to-day curriculum, as Kueter puts it, is something students will likely need to catch up on later. 

Parents: Get Involved!

Classrooms aren’t the only places to go virtual during the pandemic. With offices closed, many parents are also working from home for the foreseeable future. This offers a golden opportunity for them to take a more active role in their child’s education. STEM degrees are not required here. Teachers can handle the content. Parents can coach on the study skills and work ethic needed to succeed in school. 

“If you can demonstrate for them how to work during the day, if you can be a positive role model for your students, we can do the rest,” Kueter said . “Your students are going to learn so many skills at home. We’ll get them at the content later.”

Lesson Planning Activities and Ideas

Keeping a student engaged at home is no small feat. Here are some activities and ideas to help augment STEM lessons in the classroom at home.

Activities that Bring the Real World Home

While it can be difficult to replicate in-person experiences, virtual tools are making it possible to enjoy activities like stargazing from home.  

1. Tap into virtual aquarium and zoo programs

Caring for the animals and wildlife at local zoos and aquariums hasn’t stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them have started hosting virtual visits and discussions, with some catered specifically to students.

  • The New England Aquarium holds virtual visits on its social media channels. Visitors can check in on all the creatures and hear from the people that keep the aquarium up and running.
  • The San Diego Zoo hosts groups of students for a live virtual visit with one of their animal ambassadors. Students can interact with the ambassador and ask questions about the animals on screen.
  • The Georgia Aquarium provides lesson plans for all ages that students can do at home in addition to a video series dedicated to deep sea creatures.
  • The Bronx Zoo has a variety of live cameras during the day and also offers virtual animal encounters with the keepers.

2. Watch a live rocket launch

Rocket companies like SpaceX often host live streams of their missions, complete with commentary of what’s happening. Previous missions and diagrams can be found on their websites. The website Spaceflight Now also keeps a list of upcoming launches and their respective launch sites.

3. Go on virtual star walks

Applications like Google Sky and Star Walk 2 allow stargazing and constellation spotting without expensive telescopes. NASA also provides a “Spot the Station” location tool to help spot the International Space Station when it passes overhead.

4. Conduct virtual Labs

The virtual lab tools below are primarily geared towards teachers looking to conduct simulations in a virtual class:

  • Gizmos – Interactive math and science simulations for grades 3-12
  • LabXchange – A Harvard-run online community for lab simulation
  • PHET – A free tool from the University of Colorado Boulder for math and science simulations
  • PlayPosit – An interactive video tool that augments most online platforms, like Blackboard and Google Classroom

Home STEM Projects

Need some ideas to keep younger students engaged in STEM at home? Here are some projects parents and kids can do with minimal materials (and, hopefully, minimal mess)!

1. Meteor Craters

Simulate making craters in a baking pan at home!

Ages: 5+
Time Needed: 15-20 mins

  • Baking pan
  • Flour
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Sifter
  • Balls of Various Sizes

Messy Level: Moderately Messy
Steps: Follow the instructions for Creating Craters on Science Buddies

2. Oobleck

Learn about non-Newtonian fluids with items found in your pantry.

Ages: 5+
Time Needed: 15-20 mins

  • Corn Starch
  • Water
  • Food Coloring (for colored oobleck)

Messy Level: Very Messy
Steps: Follow the instructions for making oobleck on Best Ideas for Kids

3. Mouse Trap Reactor

Visually recreate a chain reaction that mimics nuclear fission.

Ages: 12+
Time Needed: 60 mins

  • Mouse Traps
  • Ping Pong Balls
  • A Confined Space (for the “reaction” to occur)

Messy Level: Moderately Messy
Steps: Follow the instructions for making a mouse trap reactor on Nuclear Connect

4. Rock Candy

Show how crystals form, then eat the experiment afterwards.

Ages: 5+
Time Needed: 30-40 mins prep, ~7 days to grow the crystals

  • Water
  • Sugar
  • Wooden Skewers

Messy Level: Not-So-Messy
Steps: Follow the instructions for making rock candy at The Spruce Eats

5. Rube Goldberg Machines

Inspire engineering and experimentation by repurposing objects around the house into an elaborate machine!

Ages: All
Time Needed: As much or as little time as you want

  • Literally anything laying around the house

Messy Level: Moderately Messy
Steps: Get some inspiration on how to make a Rube Goldberg Machine from The Tinker Lab

6. Balloon Rockets

Construct a guided balloon rocket and take off!

Ages: 5+
Time Needed: 15-20 mins

  • Balloon
  • Kite String
  • Tape
  • Plastic Straw

Messy Level: Not-So-Messy
Steps: Follow the instructions for making a balloon rocket at Science Bob