A Successful Science Experiment—No Lab Required

Science is all about experimentation. About trying new things, finding those new things don’t work, trying more new things, and on and on until there’s a breakthrough. Thanks to the Distance Learning Plan, Upper School science teachers know that now more than ever.

“All of the things that we normally do are very much dependent on students being present, whether it’s collaborating, or if there’s particular equipment they need, or labs they need to do,” says physics teacher Chris Ritacco. So, just before the School switched to the Distance Learning Plan, says Ritacco, “I remember scrambling, trying to figure out how we were going to make that happen or approximate it from home.” Ritacco, along with Julie Langenbrunner, another physics teacher, decided to take advantage of their classroom laboratories while they still could.  “Julie and I went in after the kids went home and just started recording ourselves doing a bunch of labs,” says Ritacco. “And we took a bunch of equipment home. It wasn’t panic; it was just ‘Let’s do as much as we can while we can do it in the building, and we’ll figure out the rest later.’”

“Chris has a whole physics lab in his basement now,” quipped Langenbrunner.

Other teachers found themselves in similar situations.

“You’re not going to be asking students to take out certain types of chemicals,” says chemistry teacher and head of the Upper School Science Department Tom Donley. Let alone mix them up. So, Donley has to rely on simulations or lab-data analysis to educate his students. “The tough part is that they’re not playing around with the equipment,” he says. As a result, there’s little room for the element of surprise—one of the most important things when it comes to learning science. “If you take a look at pictures in the textbooks, they’re idealized,” Donley says. “Then when you look into a microscope it’s like, ‘Wow, that doesn’t look anything like the picture in the textbook.’ Or doing an experiment and saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’”

The teachers also had to remember that each student lives in a different environment and may not have access to the same materials.

“One time, we said everyone had to have a spoon,” says Ritacco. “We were fairly confident that we could rely on the kids to find a spoon somewhere.” The physics teachers also created a new assignment that asked the students to build a musical instrument out of anything they could find.

“They got really creative with it,” says Langenbrunner. “One made an instrument out of a plastic ruler by putting it on the edge of a table and just thwacking it; the frequency changed based on how much was hanging off the table."

The teachers all agree that there are still irreplaceable classroom experiences—like the team spirit they feel in their classrooms. The need for innovation that was suddenly forced on teachers has—as often happens in the sciences—led to new, better ways of doing things.

“Once we get back into the classroom, I want to do more creative projects, like the making music one, because the students seemed to really enjoy that,” Langenbrunner says. “They might not have learned the same amount that they would have in terms of being able to solve physics problems, but they probably learned more about how physics relates to their actual lives—and they certainly got more of an introduction to the connection between physics and music, which we’ve always covered, but we haven’t let the kids take as much of an independent role with as we did this year.”

Donley also found that distance learning caused him to reflect on his teaching practices. “I’m still stuck in the old mode of assessing knowledge through paper tests or quizzes,” he says. “This is a very creative time right now not just for chemistry, but I think for all teaching and learning.”

Clearly the DLP presents new challenges for students, parents, and teachers alike, but as the endeavor continues—and as teachers look toward the beginning of the next academic year—Donley sees a chance to improve not only online teaching techniques, but what happens in the real-life classroom. “It will be very interesting,” he says, “to see what disruptions will come out of this.”

For now, teaching and learning science at Sidwell Friends is its own kind of experiment. Things may not work out as planned, but that’s when real growth and discovery happens.

 

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