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Local teachers say teaching science has changed during COVID-19 pandemic

How teaching science has changed
Posted at 4:00 AM, Aug 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-09 08:12:59-04

LAWRENCE, Kan.  — This month, school districts are preparing for another first day of school impacted by COVID-19. The challenges the pandemic has presented for teachers have been well documented in terms of distance learning. But COVID-19 has changed curriculum, too.

For example, how does science education change in a time when students hear phrases like "Trust the science" every day?

"A lot of my students were getting their vaccines, and some of them were like, 'I'm not sure I want to get that,'” said Betsy Lawrence, an Olathe eighth-grade science teacher. “And the others are like, 'Well, this is where my source of evidence is.'"

Lawrence says in all her classes and class experiments, students are taught to support their scientific claims.

"They have these questions and concerns and we do so much in knowing our claim and finding your evidence to support our claim and why that matters to us, and looking at credible resources," Lawrence said.

Much like adults right now, there are differences of opinion with young students. But Lawrence almost enjoys that, because she knows that's part of what she's trying to teach them.

"Those conversations and those rich questions are there as eighth-graders,” Lawrence said. “And it's fun to hear them almost like argue with each other because they have that scientific reasoning and problem-solving brain starting.”

Andrea Graham teaches first grade in Topeka. She says those COVID-19 questions start early.

"I am working with kids who are six, seven and eight, and I was very surprised, and grateful, at the questions that they were asking me,” Graham said. “But it made me realize that they are really thinking and absorbing what is happening in the world around them."

At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, that next generation of teachers is learning about this new curriculum, too. Professors say they have a unique opportunity right now because students of all levels are coming to class with timely questions.

Dr. Doug Ward is the associate director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU. He says the way students look at the value of what they're learning has changed.

"COVID really forced teachers of all kinds to look at, when I have students in-person with me, what do I need to do to help them learn,” Ward said. "Students more and more are asking for those kinds of things. Instructors are responding to that, and really trying to make everything relevant to what they're doing."

Dr. Douglas Huffman, professor of science education at KU, agrees.

"I think it's going to help us get our candidates for elementary teachers understanding what science really is,” Huffman said. “It's not just learning facts and information, but it's trying to understand evidence and things that change so quickly."

Lawrence says this class of COVID-impacted students is proving they're up to the challenges science so often provides.

“They just, they just could not get enough,” Lawrence said. “I felt like my students this year just dug deeper than I’ve ever seen. They wanted to ask those questions, they wanted to really dig into the sources, or they wanted to go deeper and find new sources to whatever the science we were supporting."

Ward says that similar educational shifts are showing up in all kinds of subjects, including obvious ones like history and political science as well as subjects like architecture, where students have to consider airflow for buildings in a way they never have before.