Science teachers are consistently looking for new and innovative ways to engage their students in the scientific discovery process. This is especially true now, as many teachers are tasked with delivering remote instruction this coming school year due to ongoing closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can teachers continue to deliver enriching science instruction during this time? How can they captivate students’ attention and interest in STEM while teaching remotely?

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Christine Anne Royce, Ed.D., about the value that data analysis brings to both in-person and remote science education. Dr. Royce, a professor of teacher education and the co-director of the Master of Arts in Teaching in STEM education program at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, as well as a past president of the National Science Teaching Association, shared some valuable insights on this topic below.

What are the benefits of analyzing and interpreting data?

Data analysis helps students make sense of what they are learning, which helps them make real-world connections. During the analysis process, students can take discrete pieces of information, interpret it using science and engineering practices, and understand how it relates to the world around them.

Data analysis also provides students with a great opportunity to increase their use of modeling with data and to hone their visualization skills. In middle school, students might be given a graph and asked to interpret the data, but students entering high school and college will be asked to take raw data and illustrate their findings. Being able to visualize data is a key to deepening critical thinking skills.

Even in social distancing, there is still a social aspect of data analysis because students are able to collaborate with their peers, discuss findings, and collectively make sense of the data being presented—all of which are important to increasing understanding and improving communication. 

Why is data analysis important during virtual learning? How can teachers facilitate this?

Even when students aren’t able to participate in the traditional lab experience—during which they are collecting their own data and interacting with their peers—they can still grow or develop their scientific practices through data analysis. Therefore, it is important for teachers to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to access and interpret data when learning at home. 

Teachers can model an experiment to provide context about the phenomena being studied. This can either be done synchronously or using pre-recorded videos of a given experiment. If done live, it is a great idea for teachers to stop and answer students’ questions and listen to their ideas as the demonstration is taking place. 

Once students establish an understanding of the experiment, teachers can provide sample data from that investigation for students to analyze. Data Nuggets and the Vernier Experiment and Sample Data Library are two good places to look for this information. Once students have the data, they can break off in virtual small groups to discuss their findings or teachers can have them share their findings with the group using a chat box, which is a good exercise in practicing their written communication skills. Either way, the goal is to have students engage in as much discussion as possible as students work through the analysis process. 

Overall, while doing an experiment in person is always ideal, this method provides a good alternative as students can still actively participate in the process from afar.

What are some other practical ways teachers can engage students during remote learning?

While students at home don’t necessarily have access to the sensors and technology found in the classroom or lab, provide them with opportunities to safely experiment using simple household items. For example, using rubbing alcohol and strawberries, among other household items, students can perform simple DNA extractions. Even in investigations that use at-home materials, safety guidelines should always be followed.

Some science educators and companies—from the elementary to the college level—are even putting together kits so that students have a simple set of materials to help facilitate at-home experiments. For more complex experimentation, such as dissections in biology, teachers could also look at using simulations to have the students participate virtually. 

As always, it is a great idea to make local ties and connect science to students’ everyday life. For data analysis, teachers can check with local Audubon organizations, agriculture groups, and recycling centers for relevant data to share with their students. Teachers can also have students analyze weather data based on their zip code or even look at COVID-19 data trends in their area. Using any of this data, pose questions that challenge students’ thinking and have them formulate data-driven solutions to a given problem.

Citizen science is another real-world connection to engage students in the learning process while contributing to a larger community-based study. In the past, for example, I had a group of elementary students participate in a study about bees in which they had to count—and track over time—the number of dandelions found in a hula hoop-sized circumference.

Whether teaching in person or remotely, it’s all about having students engage in the learning process, make real-world connections, and take ownership of their learning.