The Challenges of Teaching Science Online
By: Haanya Quadri
We all know how challenging virtual learning is. It is especially difficult for students taking higher-level science and math classes, as many of the hands-on learning can’t be performed this year. Because of these restrictions, the visual representation of complex concepts becomes a bit harder to comprehend. But what happens on the other side of the screen? How are science teachers handling these challenges from their end? The Falcon Flyer interviewed Mr. Yergler, an AP and I-level chemistry teacher here at Wheaton North, to find out.
Falcon Flyer: How has your teaching style changed over the past few months?
Mr. Yergler: ...I feel like you have to push yourself to come across as more relaxed and approachable because it’s so much harder for a student to approach you as a teacher now that you have to go through Zoom. And so I have to do things that make me appear to be more approachable, I guess, and just find little ways to add a human touch to class. Even something as silly as adding Bitmojis to your slides: there’s something about that that adds a personal touch to it. Teachers, in general, I think, are always getting those ideas from each other, and that’s one I got from another teacher.
Falcon Flyer: So as you talk to other teachers, have you felt that science is more challenging to teach online compared to other subjects?
Mr. Yergler: Yeah, not necessarily more challenging to teach, but I think it’s a bigger cost for the students. I feel bad that, well, science teachers pride ourselves in having fun classes because you’re doing more hands-on stuff, and it’s lame to watch a teacher do a demonstration through a camera, you know? So, it’s harder to get that hands-on feel for obvious reasons. But if our classes were like, “Here’s the content, here’s the worksheet, here’s the quiz,” and we just cranked through all of that, then it wouldn’t be difficult, but I feel like that would make class terrible.
Falcon Flyer: How does teaching science online differ from other subjects?
Mr. Yergler: The lab and activity piece is a big part. It’s hard for me to say, because I haven’t taught other classes, but there’s less whole-group discussion, and I think that’s where an English or Social Studies teacher might be at a disadvantage. It’s so difficult to have big class discussions when everyone is on zoom or half the population is on Zoom.
Falcon Flyer: Have you had to slow down your teaching pace, or can you speed it up without in-person distractions?
Mr. Yergler: Slow down, because you can’t get through as much. The feedback is harder to give, and I think that slows everything down. And Mr. Biscan pushes this as well, to make sure you’re only teaching what’s necessary. Every discipline, every class, has core content and then there’s periphery content, and even beyond that, there’s optional content that the teacher might want to do because they really like the topic. That’s the kind of stuff that might get cut when you go into a situation like this.
Falcon Flyer: How do you manage both virtual and in-person students? I would imagine that to be really hard.
Mr. Yergler: Yeah, not well [laughs]. It depends on the day…actually, that would be a good question for you to answer. Yeah, you just do the best you can: you provide space for people at home to ask questions.
Falcon Flyer: Without visual cues, how can you tell when students are struggling with a concept?
Mr. Yergler: Everyone’s visual cues are the same now, they’re all like this [makes a blank face]. So the kids that are getting it are like that, and the kids that are totally lost are like that[makes blank face again]. That’s an insightful question, I think you have to rely on assessment data: a short quiz, an exit slip type thing, or if you’re able to see people doing things in real-time, like on PearDecks, that could be helpful.
Falcon Flyer: What do you miss the most about a normal school year?
Mr. Yergler: Definitely seeing students’ entire faces, for one thing, was nice, not just the top half. And the ability to quickly make social connections with students off to the side. You know, on Zoom, it’s kind of awkward to say,” Hey, John, what did you do last weekend?” And then he has to say it and everyone’s hearing it. Whereas in-person, you can just do that off to the side and have that back and forth dialogue. That’s probably the biggest loss for me.
Falcon Flyer: What is some advice you would give to students this year?
Mr. Yergler: Ask questions about everything, and how you’re doing in the class, about how to do better, about content, pushing yourself through that discomfort of talking in a Zoom or google meet. It actually makes everyone else feel more comfortable when someone is willing to break the ice. It releases everyone else’s tension too, and it makes everyone else more likely to talk.