George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

How to Make Remote or Hybrid Math and Science Instruction Engaging

Take advantage of online resources and simple experiments students can do at home to keep them learning in all teaching scenarios.

August 3, 2020
Boy looking through binoculars outside.
Blacqbook / iStock

Teaching science and math is fun because of the smiles. And the messes. And the “oohs” when you light something on fire, or make the first cut of a dissection, or finally solve that tricky algebra equation. But how do you keep it fun and engaging remotely? Or if half of your students are learning from home in a hybrid teaching model?

The ideas presented here can be adapted for most upper elementary or middle school classrooms for both of these scenarios.

Simple Experiments and Math Projects for Remote Learning

Focus on things that can be easily communicated and don’t need lots of materials. Can students calculate volume by measuring cereal boxes? Or grow mold in a Ziploc bag with foods from the fridge? How about measuring and graphing the foot sizes and wingspans of family members?

Activities that allow kids to safely share about their home lives will help you build relationships. What are the surface areas of three objects in your bedroom? What plants and animals can you record in your neighborhood on the iNaturalist app?

Use Flipgrid to share videos, or create a Padlet for kids to share their work. Apps like Notability, which is available for iPhones and iPads and Android devices, allow students on tablets to open documents, record data, and share finished documents with teachers on multiple learning platforms.

Simulations and Games

Many scientific and math concepts can be simulated or recreated using apps and websites. Free sites include PhET simulations (science and math simulations for upper elementary through high school), Legends of Learning (a science and math game platform) and Tuva Labs (real data sets students manipulate for math or science projects). Free apps like Solar System Scope, Merlin Bird ID, and Geometry Pad, which is available for iPads and Android devices, let students explore science and math content on tablets. Paid sites like Mystery Science, ExploreLearning Gizmos, and BrainPop provide videos, games, projects, and assessments that can all be done from home.

If your school has a hybrid model, look for ways to reinforce classroom activities with one of these sites while students are at home. During our sound unit, I play bird song recordings in the classroom, and students create spectrograms of each song based on the pitch changes and duration of the various notes. This year I plan for students at home to make bird-call recordings in their neighborhoods and to use Merlin Bird ID to identify each bird.

Get Online With Experts

National Geographic Explorer Classroom offers weekly livestreams with scientists, explorers, and astronauts where students can live chat their questions while watching each presentation. Teachers can share the livestream link with students learning from home. The Cincinnati Zoo posts videos of zookeepers interacting with animals and answering questions from viewers. NASA Live posts videos of all kinds of cool space events.

All of this content can be watched in a classroom or at home and discussed at a future class meeting. Last year, my students loved hearing about life aboard the International Space Station; chatting with a scientist who attaches remote cameras to whales, grizzly bears, and other wild animals; and watching the Cincinnati Zoo hippos open their enormous jaws for a salad lunch.

Mix Online Content With Your Own Videos and Ideas

Khan Academy math and science videos, Edpuzzle, and Nearpod have tons of content divided by standard, grade level, and concept. Edpuzzle embeds questions in science and math videos to encourage students to stop and think about the content. Nearpod has guided presentations with embedded videos, questions, and opportunities for reflection. Many of these include their own assessments and other forms of feedback. But don’t rely on these too heavily for instruction. Students still need to see your face and hear your voice when they are learning remotely.

Consider creating your own screen recordings, or post videos with YouTube or Flipgrid. Include a link where kids can comment on your video or answer an open-ended question for others to see. Being funny, weird, or a little over the top goes a long way here. Just your normal teaching voice works in the classroom, but distance learning requires a different level of commitment. Picture a student sitting alone on their bed watching your video. Will they be entertained? Will they remember the content? What is the hook—what will catch their attention? Make sure you bring up these points when you next meet with students online.

Divide Up the Work

The fifth-grade math team at my school made content creation manageable by splitting the work, with each teacher choosing a concept and creating a video and activity to go along with it to be shared with all fifth graders. This saved time and allowed the teachers to dig deep and provide a great lesson rather than rushing to create multiple lessons in one week. This strategy may prove especially useful if schools are in a hybrid-teaching model where we have students at school but are also providing content for students at home. I’m spending time this summer creating videos and online content so I won’t be racing to finish lessons as I did all spring.

I have no doubt this will be the strangest school year I will ever teach. Flexibility, patience, and resilience will be critical. Look out for your fellow teachers, and take care of yourself. 

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  • Math
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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation