The value of hands-on activities during distance learning (5-28 April 2020)

Author: Aiki Jogeva

When our school closed on March 12, no one believed that we would not be able to return to school during this school year. So we can say that during overnight the lives of both students and teachers changed dramatically. At first, everybody needed some time to get used to the new situation and very soon we were facing a problem of too much screen time.

When planning inquiry-based tasks, I have often preferred those that can be done hands-on, or in reality. There are definitely loads of inquiry-based tasks that can be done successfully with animations, models and other digital tools. Nevertheless, in chemistry, biology or science both I and my students consider experimenting with natural objects or substances more exciting and I didn’t want to give it up. In the classroom it has worked well, especially because students worked in groups, they could discuss and help each other. But it seemed to be a challenge during the distance learning period.

I wanted to make use of the situation and asked myself a research question: How does distance learning (e-learning) influence the students’ interest in doing hands-on inquiry-based tasks?

I set up the hypothesis that most of the students will be enthusiastic because they can get away from the screens.

I used structured inquiry resources from our own student books. In some cases, I had to change the list of equipment because people had to stay at home and couldn’t go shopping freely. Sometimes I relied on the explanations in the books, sometimes we had lessons on Google Meet before or after the activity.

Examples of the inquiry-based home tasks in chemistry and science

1. Acids, bases, pH.

  • Making a universal indicator from blueberries or red cabbage, measuring pH of different liquids at home. Not everybody had blueberries or could buy red cabbage so this was a bit difficult.
  • Is my local soil acidic or alkaline? Why is it important to know? What are the signs of a reaction? We used soil, vinegar and baking soda.

2. Solutions, soluble and non-soluble substances.

  • Sedimentation rate measurements. How the size of particles influences sedimentation rate? We used sand or soil that was available near homes.
  • How different is the salinity of the Baltic sea and the ocean? We needed only salt, kitchen scales and water.

3. Air, water, weather, clouds.

  • How clouds form? Making a cloud in the bottle. Changing air temperature and pressure.
  • How hot air balloons work? Warm air rises and cold air sinks.

A balloon on the empty bottle. What happens when you put the bottle into warm water and later in the cold water?

Lessons learned

1. Each new situation offers new opportunities for learning.

2. There are students who work well at school in groups but need extra help and encouragement when they have to work on their own. The reasons vary.

3. Group discussions are essential for all the students because it is not always easy for them to understand the process and make the right conclusions. Even the brightest ones can misunderstand.

4. Do not forget group work and find efficient ways. I have relied too much on the ability of the students to work independently.

5. My hypothesis was partly confirmed. Not every student was enthusiastic and the reasons vary. Working independently needs more effort and time. I still believe that during distance learning period it is important to reduce the screen time with the help of hands-on inquiry-based tasks. As the distance learning goes on I have the chance to improve the tasks, the way of instructing, discussing and evaluation.