Science Education: Facing a Choice

Posted by Whitney Dove on Apr 10, 2020 12:55:00 PM

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States has been hard on all of us. That’s for sure. Schools have closed for extended periods of time, some indefinitely, and parents are at their wits’ end trying to balance the regular demands of managing households while providing school-like structure and normalcy for their children. 

Thanks to social media, I have witnessed true innovation, compassion, and good ol’ fashioned American ingenuity. Math teachers are working problems on their shower boards and broadcasting their lectures over the Internet to their students. Reading teachers are making sight-word hopscotch games on neighborhood sidewalks. Art teachers are sending students on virtual tours of museums. I am inspired, overwhelmed, and frankly, humbled by the spirit of educators. 

Vendors, non-profits, and universities have lent their support as well. Leaders in the education space have bent over backwards to put resources, guides, and even professional development courses online for teachers as they work to navigate new routines. Twitter and Facebook, of course, have facilitated connections among educators, become a repository of new ideas, and given rise to an entirely new paradigm for education in the 21st century. The idea of “distance learning” has moved from the abstract realm into something we all see evolving and growing every day, as we learn and adopt new methodologies. 

Perhaps my perspective on this is unique. I am a former middle school science teacher turned science curriculum writer. At some point in my career, I made the shift to focusing mainly on teacher professional development. I have been working to deliver teacher PD online for several years now. My doctoral dissertation explored the characteristics of effective online professional development for STEM teachers. These experiences, coupled with my background in science education, certainly have provided me with a comprehensive framework for viewing and responding to this emerging paradigm. 

In my view, science education is at a major crossroads. In front of us lies the option to move forward, blazing ahead to fully embrace online methodologies;  the other option is to move backwards, reverting to the “content-is-king” mentality and using online technology simply as a container for our materials. Let me explain both options, as I see them. 

Move Forward

For the past several decades, science education has shifted away from the “teacher-as-expert” paradigm and has, instead, embraced a more student-centered, inquiry-based approach. This view of science education as student-centered is congruent with the nature of scientific endeavor itself. Here, I will propose a two-pronged approach to moving forward. First, we must approach distance science learning through the lens of constructivist philosophy. Second, we must continue to engage students in the practices of scientists and engineers. 

Constructivist Philosophy 

In the constructivist view of learning, students construct meaning from their direct experiences. Simply put, they must interact with ideas and concepts first-hand to develop a full understanding of them. As science education has come to accept constructivism, we have seen science teaching emphasize experiential learning, sense-making, and the construction of ideas through working with authentic materials, discourse, argumentation, and self-reflection. The 5E Instructional Model is an instructional framework that guides teachers in organizing students’ learning experience in a way that facilitates their relevant, in-depth understanding of grade level standards. The 5E Model provides, in many cases, a dependable framework from which to design and deliver constructivist methods. 

Science and Engineering Practices

The dawn of the Next Generation Science Standards brought with it a clearly defined set of practices, mirroring the work of scientists and engineers, geared toward helping students develop 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. According to the Framework for K-12 Education, there are eight practices that are essential for science education: 

    1. Asking questions and defining problems 
    2. Developing and using models 
    3. Planning and carrying out investigations
    4. Analyzing and interpreting data
    5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
    6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions 
    7. Engaging in argument from evidence 
    8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information 

If we take the “Move Forward” option at the crossroad, we continue walking, one foot in front of the other, on this same path. We continue to design instruction that embraces both constructivism and science and engineering practices. 

Let’s consider the following example lesson, built to address a 3rd grade life science standard from NGSS, using the 5E Instructional Model.

Learning Standard: 3-LS3-2 Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment.


Main Learner Activities

Main Teacher Activities

Evidence of Learning

Instructional Resources


Students watch live video streams from several zoo exhibits.

They write down their observations about each animal, and the areas where they live.

Students follow up with the teacher to share and discuss their observations.

Make time to check in with each student facilitate their Engage with the following types of questions:

- What differences did you notice in the areas where the animals live?

- Why do you think the zoo has to make their areas different?

- What does this make you want to know?

Students submit their observations. (Options include pictures of notes, short videos, or discussions with small groups of students.)

Atlanta Zoo - Panda Cam

Houston Zoo - Elephant Cam

San Diego Zoo - Polar Bear Cam


Students watch a story about being a dolphin trainer.

They write down each of the dolphin’s characteristics on an individual index card or sticky note (smooth skin, long snout, blow-hole, fins, jumps out of water, turns in circles, etc.).

They take their index cards and separate them into two stacks. The first stack should be “because of the environment” and “because of the trainer.”

Take pictures of the stacks and submit to the teacher.

Explain the activity to students.

Give feedback on stacks of cards.

Allow students to submit multiple times.

Monitor students’ use of their rules for separating.

Introduce the vocabulary term “trait” as students demonstrate a readiness for it.

Students create a “rule” that they use to separate out the cards into two stacks. They share this rule with the teacher. (Options include through a discussion or through an LMS.)

Dolphin Training Video


Students select an animal to research.

Using their “rule,”’ they collect evidence of how that animal’s traits have been influenced by the environment.

Students use the Claim-Evidence- Reasoning format to create a scientific explanation for how their animals’ traits have been influenced by the environment.

Students share their explanations with peers during small group or whole group video conferencing sessions.

Monitor students’ use of vocabulary terms.

Ask guiding questions to probe students’ thinking.

Provide feedback on students’ scientific explanations.

Facilitate students’ sharing during small group or whole group video conferencing sessions.

Students share their scientific explanation with their peers.

Google Slides

Google Docs

Zoom video conferencing


Students engage in a “two-truths and a lie”-style dialogue around the following prompt:

“Can you guess my environmental traits?”

Each group meets together to come up with two examples of environmental traits and one nonexample of an environmental trait.

When the whole group comes back together, students share out their list. Students take turns responding to the list.

Divide students into small equal-sized groups. If the whole class is meeting together, use the “breakout room” feature of Zoom to allow them time to work together. If not meeting as a whole class, ensure that the small groups have time to meet together asynchronously.

During the whole group, facilitate students in using their “rules” to support their decisions.

Students apply their understanding of this learning standard to generate and respond to the arguments of their peers.

Two Truths and a Lie Instructions


Students respond to the following open-ended prompt:

The turtles at a nearby park will swim up to the shore as soon as they see people coming. Turtles in the wild jump into the water when they see people coming. Explain why you believe there is a difference in behavior between these two groups.

Provide feedback on students' responses.

Allow multiple submissions to ensure mastery.

If needed, do 1x1 instruction with students to support their learning.


As you can see, this lesson plan isn’t really all that different from what might ordinarily happen in a science classroom that embraces constructivism and the practices of scientists and engineers. The key difference, here, is that the learning could take place asynchronously with students working online and independently at different times, or it could happen synchronously with students learning in the same place at the same time. Quality science instruction can take place online as well as on-site. The same theories and paradigms that define good science instruction are important—and possible—in both on-site and online instruction.

Now, let’s consider the alternative choice: moving backwards. 

Move Backwards

While it is early yet, much of what I have seen bubbling up on social media shows students working on lengthy packets, reading chapters from textbooks, and watching teacher-recorded lectures to simply acquire information. This constitutes a step backward from constructivist learning. Of course, these initial efforts to get information to students have sprung up out of sheer determination and a commitment to keep the learning happening. Without question, a packet of reading and worksheets to work through at home is better than nothing at all. Please do not mistake my words of caution here for a criticism of these early attempts. 

However, if we fail to maintain our commitment to constructivist science instruction, where we intentionally integrate science and engineering practices, as we provide more science instruction online, we will be “moving backwards.” Below are several potential consequences of this choice, paired with an alternative outcome, should we choose to move forward. 

Assignments versus Experiences

If we move backward, we may see teachers more frequently assigning work to students, rather than providing learners a path that provides an authentic science experience. Consider the following examples: 



Read an article about the properties of magnets.

Go to your refrigerator to find a magnet. Figure out how it works.

Watch a recorded video of a lecture on patterns of shadows.

Go outside in the early morning, mid-morning, early afternoon, and late afternoon. Stand in the same spot and measure the length of your shadow.


The nature of science, surely, is more fully embodied by cultivating experiences than by sending assignments. Let us be careful, then, to provide students with learning experiences that immerse them in doing science, versus just passively seeing or hearing about it.

Teaching versus Facilitating

In the beginning, it makes complete and total sense for a teacher to deliver a vast majority of content through traditional direct instruction. This is the fastest and most efficient way to make sure that some degree of learning continues. Usually, it takes the form of pre-recorded video lectures or even live video conferences using a slideshow presentation. The examples below illustrate key differences between teaching and facilitating:



Direct every aspect of the learning experience.

Allow some degree of student choice with regard to how learning is carried out, how it is processed, or how it is demonstrated.

Transmit information to the students.

Curate experiences and activities to allow students to construct meaning from experience.

Assess students’ learning.

Use questioning and discourse strategies to probe students’ thinking throughout the learning process.


If online delivery allows us to unwittingly slide backwards, the teacher may go back to being the “sage on the stage,” rather than the “guide on the side.” We want to always remember that a best practice in science education is for the teacher to assume the role of facilitator. It may not be entirely possible in the early days of distance learning, but it is time to start thinking about how we can accomplish this goal in that new paradigm. 

Containing versus Designing and Scaffolding

We have a choice to make about how we leverage our technology to deliver students’ learning. If we move backward, technology is primarily used to “contain” learning. In this scenario, learning management systems or websites simply serve as a central location for accessing information and assignments. The alternative would be to leverage technology to effectively “design and scaffold” student learning. A learning sequence might be introduced so that students engage with their experiences in a meaningful way. In a structured environment, collaboration with peers and teachers can be purposefully interspersed throughout self-directed learning activities. All of this brings richness and meaningful context to the learner and, thus, their personal construction of understanding.

Knowing versus Understanding 

All of the factors above come together to make this final distinction. If science instruction moves backwards, we will abandon what we know works best in science education, whether intentionally or not. Rather than emphasizing science as a dynamic, ever-changing, active discipline, we will regress to viewing it as something that can easily be retrieved and memorized. In this view, vocabulary acquisition and memorization of key concepts are paramount. Knowledge, really, is prioritized over conceptual understanding. Conceptual understanding requires first-hand experiences with phenomena, opportunities for sense-making, engagement in critical thinking, and discourse with peers. I recommend that we intentionally put our efforts here as we learn to become online science educators. 

It appears that our engagement with this distance learning arrangement will be long term. If we were only talking about weeks, it would be appropriate to just keep kids busy by sending out assignments and sharing brief video lectures with them. However, given the reality of circumstances, we need to come together to design high-quality science learning for our students for the remainder of this school year, at least. 

To do that, we have to make a choice at this crossroads. Do we move forward, or do we move backwards? 

Topics: teaching online, distance learning, "remote learning", Making Online Instruction Work - Now!, virtual teaching