5 Ideas to Teach Science Through Distance Learning

Mark Hoffman

Senior Product Marketing Manager • K-12 Science/Disciplinary Literacy • National Geographic Learning | Cengage

Finding time to engage students in science was already challenging enough before being forced into distance learning by a pandemic. Now with synchronous instruction time with students even less than before when you were in class, it’s nearly impossible to fit science in. With the fun and easy resources here, you will be motivated to tackle science lessons and keep students engaged with science in some unique and creative ways.

#1 Get Their Eyes on You

One very eye-catching way to get students’ attention is to show them some amazing live images. One way to do this is with a tool like a hand-held digital camera microscope. These little cameras can magnify the surface of any object up to 500x just by touching it with the tip of the lens. They can connect to a computer by USB or to a phone or tablet through WiFi. These live magnified images are an ideal way to introduce phenomena at the beginning of lessons. What you can magnify is practically limitless, but some interesting objects include: flowers; sand; fabric/clothing; insects; human body parts such as skin, fingerprints, hair, eyes; and everyday object become extraordinary under magnification such as coins and paper money, pen ink and pencil writing, and even the pixels on your cell phone will make you rethink how everything is made. There are many sources for getting these hand-held camera microscopes starting at about $50, one good source for teachers is Southern Science Supply.

The author's eye at 60x magnification

#2 Practice the Powers of Observation 

Making observations may seem like a simple task, but students (especially younger ones) can always use more practice in finding important details and patterns, and also practicing patience. One way you may not have tried is to have students make animal observations using the hundreds of free live streaming cams offered by zoos, aquariums, and other nature organizations. What is great about these is that they usually stream 24 hours a day allowing students to peek in on animal life at any time of day or night. Having students focus on one species (or even one specific individual animal), and make observations over hours or days will increase their observational skills and provide a window into animal behavior that a few minutes at a crowded zoo cannot provide. There are literally hundreds of zoos and aquariums with cameras, but below are a few good options to start with.

San Diego Zoo

National Zoo in Washington, DC

Monterey Bay Aquarium

#3 Connect Students Live with a Real Scientist

Kids will (sometimes) happily watch a pre-recorded video as part of a science lesson, but why not make that experience active and real by connecting live with a National Geographic Explorer or other scientists? There are many opportunities for your students to talk live to a scientist, engineer, Explorer, or photographer where students are live on-camera with the Explorer and able to talk and ask questions directly to them. The National Geographic Explorer Classroom program offers teachers comprehensive support for these live encounters with Educator Guides available for each event to help you prep students before, to pay closer attention while live, and to discuss what was learned after the event. Some of these are even offered in Spanish and American Sign Language.

One teacher, Joe Grabowski, set up so many of these live events with scientists and his students that he actually became a National Geographic Explorer because of his work to connect students to real scientists this way. With help from Nat Geo, Joe was able to set up and expand his own organization called Exploring By the Seat of Your Pants to facilitate daily live events for students to connect with scientists live.

The best part is that every event from both organizations above is recorded and available for free, on-demand, any time. There are literally hundreds of videos on every subject area imaginable to choose from!

Students can also get to know National Geographic Explorers through using our National Geographic Exploring Science program for grades K-5 where students ‘meet’ many Explorers in the pages of the book and in the digital platform through videos. Each grade includes one host Explorer who revisits students throughout the year in the text and digital platform.

#4 Take a Virtual Field Trip

Instead of using Google Earth to fly over your own house or to ‘spy’ on your neighbors, why not use the power of the tool to take students to places they’ve never been before? Google Earth and other organizations have created some incredible opportunities for learning through hosted, informational, and content-rich explorations all over the world. Being whisked away digitally to a faraway place is only so valuable without some context and guidance while you’re there. The examples below include either teacher resources to help students make the most of their trip, or they have valuable resources and guidance built-in to keep students on task in their learning. The Google list below includes several expeditions created by National Geographic and other Explorers including Jane Goodall. All of these are free resources.

The Nature Conservancy Virtual Field Trips

Google Earth “Voyager” Expeditions (may take a minute to load)

National Geographic Virtual Expeditions:

            Saving the Kordofan Giraffe with Explorer Naftali Honig

            Goodall, Gombe, and Google with Jane Goodall

            Building the National Geographic Photo Ark with Joel Sartore

            Helping People and Animals Coexist with Explorer Krithi Karanth

            Explore the Last Pristine Seas with Explorer Enric Sala

#5 Connect with the Broader Science Community — Citizen Science

Students as young as preschool have the skills to collect real scientific data that scientists need to do their work. Allowing students of all ages the opportunity to make a real contribution to the scientific body of knowledge can be a very powerful experience. Citizen Science projects connect everyday people and their willingness to observe and collect some data, with scientists who rely on that data to conduct their research. This can be as simple as taking a picture with your phone using the iNaturalist App to share with the science community, or as elaborate as climbing a mountain peak and collecting snow samples along the way (only for the experts!). These projects can also be as local as observing the stream in your neighborhood to the worldwide Christmas Bird Count conducted every year for the past 120 years by the Audubon Society. Get started choosing how you’ll make an impact with the links below.


National Geographic Citizen Science Projects

Adventure Scientists run by NG Explorer Gregg Treinish

Watch the Webinar On Demand!

Interested in additional ideas on how to engage your K-8 Science Students? Watch the recording of our webinar, Ideas and Best Practices to Teach Science Through Distance Learning, with Mark Hoffman and 2nd Grade Teacher Kathy Seidl.
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