Were students really engaged in remote science in 2020-21?

A leader at the nationally acclaimed Danforth Plant Science Center says learning during the pandemic was mixed, but the results in K-12s brought a few positive surprises.
Kris Callis-Duehl

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center outside St. Louis provides transformative STEM learning experiences for young students, graduate students, teachers and faculty. Lessons are typically hands-on or face-to-face.

But the past year saw far more Zoom greetings than live experiments and training. Dr. Kris Callis-Duehl, Director of Science Education Research and Outreach at the Center, noticed both positive and negative changes in engagement among students during her work and research.

In a study published in the journal Microbiology and Biology Education, she noted that college students suffered significant disconnects in cognitive and emotional engagement over the past year, leaning against science in many instances and showing virtually no upward trajectory in learning.

Though her team has not unveiled outcomes for K-12 students, they may not be much different.

“Did they learn the content? They probably didn’t get those skills down as well as in person,” Callis-Duehl says. “But there are other skills that are possibly more important that they did learn.”

A willingness to adapt

In her interactions with K-12s, Callis-Duehl says there has been a willingness among students to branch out on their own, and to be more organized and adaptable when their plant projects, for example, have wilted. “Students are a lot more independent and in charge of their learning,” she says. “They’re much more conscientious about their time and more responsible for their schedules. Even our elementary and middle school students, if we said, ‘We’re going to set the Zoom up and you’re going to talk to one of our science scientists,’ they were there and they were prepared.”

She also noted that the experience trickled down to even the youngest students. “Most of the time, they were engaged with us, they were talking with us, they were paying attention.”

The ability to handle negative outcomes—even from something as simple as growing a plant from a kit sent by the Center—seemed better in this new environment.

“Students who didn’t have the success that they wanted to, we were able to talk a lot more about productive failure,” she says. “’Would you want to try it again? Should we send you another kit?’ The lesson may have ended, but they were able to grow beyond that.”

Improvements Callis-Duehl and her team noticed were “the soft skills that are necessary to be a successful learner, the ones almost impossible to teach—time management, being self-driven, being responsible for your own education and work. We’ve seen a huge jump in those. In the long run, we actually may see these students be quite successful.”

Photo courtesy of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

The ‘we can’ mentality

How well did teachers do amid all the challenges of virtual instruction?

“The science teachers we work with were a mess the first two weeks,” Callis-Duehl says. “But after about three weeks, the teachers started to get with it. They were able to adjust a lot faster than the college faculty. A K-12 teacher, there’s not a day that goes by where their plan is executed the way they thought. So, they become a lot more plastic in their lesson planning and how they engage with students. That ability to change is why we saw them adapt much quicker to the online setting.”

Not that scientific work should be done fully online, but teacher and district responses this year to the challenges of technology and learning remotely show that the impossible is sometimes possible. “When I’m working with a superintendent and I start to hear ‘we can’t’—it’s going to take five years to implement, the school district is slow—I’m like, look what you just did!” Callis-Duehl says. “You pivoted on a dime. Teachers took on a huge responsibility. We showed that we can. So how do we make it happen?”

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