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Some benchmarks for practicing science and technology outside the laboratory with elementary and secondary students

Although the practical aspect of science and technology to generate learning and arouse curiosity is recognized, it has been undermined with the pandemic. In this text, Geneviève Allaire-Duquette presents certain benchmarks to guide teachers so that they can allow students to continue their practical learning even outside a laboratory.

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By Geneviève Allaire-Duquette, University of Sherbrooke

Although the practical aspect of science and technology to generate learning and arouse curiosity is recognized, it has been undermined with the pandemic. Reproducing experimental activities outside the classroom or outside the laboratory is a challenge. We find ourselves cramped, the equipment is lacking, or there is a lack of supervision to ensure a safe operation. What to do then? Certain benchmarks could constitute a reasonable starting point to allow students to continue their practical learning even outside the laboratory.

Why maintain practical science and technology activities in distance education?

All over the world, practical work is considered an essential part of learning science and technology, just as discussion is an essential part of language learning. 

This consensus is found among teaching staff, students, parents, employers and professional scientists who note that experimental sciences and technologies make it possible in particular to appreciate the scientific process, improve the understanding of theoretical concepts, motivate or engage students and develop skills that go beyond the scientific framework, including communication and perseverance.

Surprisingly, despite the growing power of digital technology to simulate the real world, practical science is still valued so much (The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, 2017).

Recently, the pandemic has greatly increased the number of hours students spend learning in virtual mode. This increase is likely to have repercussions on mental health and weaken children's sense of belonging to school (Simpson & Knox, 2020). Ensuring the pedagogical continuity of practical activities in science and technology could help reduce these harmful impacts.

A pilot study has shown that students who carry out scientific and technological experiments as a family at home develop a better community spirit, communicate better and are more inclined to share attitudes (Simpson & Knox, 2020). Several students even continue with the activities once the stated objective has been reached, for example using materials from the recycling bin to design technical objects of their own accord.

Where to start to make science and technology “on the go”?

It may seem difficult to pilot hands-on activities outside of the school or laboratory. To help us, the Education Endowment Foundation (2020) offers some benchmarks to better embark on the adventure of experimental science and technology "to go". Here is a summary and explanation of the most important benchmarks:

1. Above all, think about safety. 

When planning “take-out” science and technology experimental activities, the primary consideration should be student safety. The equipment should be simplified to, for example, minimize the use of blunt objects or the presence of flames by performing pre-cutting of samples or flameless heating, if possible. In the context of a pandemic, it is also necessary to think about reducing or even avoiding the sharing of equipment. If the equipment is shared, it will need to be disinfected, even after its last use.

2. Work in "kits". 

It may be wise to provide educational kits to distribute to students in rotation if the quantity of material is limited. For example, if we experiment with melting, each student can work from a piece of chocolate or an ice cube placed in a plastic bag. Or, to work on magnetism, objects can be placed behind a Plexiglas to avoid their manipulation. We can also put our fellow technicians in practical work or the students to contribute and ensure the cleaning of the equipment when the kits are returned. 

3. Assign roles for taking action. 

To facilitate the involvement of members of the family bubble, specific roles can be assigned for taking measures. For example, in a dissolution experiment, a student might collect the filtrate, a parent might be responsible for handling the thermometer, and a grandparent might take care of the brewing.

4. Film demonstrations. 

As parents may have little experience in supervising practical activities in science and technology, it may be wise to make available online a demonstration that has been filmed with a telephone. This support makes it easier to set up and carry out the experiment. In addition, the demonstration may offer questions for family discussion, for example: "How did the experiment control the variables?" "," Were the results surprising? Why? Or "Was the variable under study appropriate?" Why? ".

5. Experiment outside. 

Conducting experimental activities outdoors can avoid the need to prepare, share, and sanitize equipment. For example, a friction experiment can be conducted outdoors if students are asked to use their pencil case or their own shoes as an experimental setup. It is also possible to ask the pupils to carry out surveys on the different types of soil by asking them to draw their observations.

6. Use simulations. 

Finally, as a last resort, if the material is too dangerous to handle or is not available in sufficient quantity, we can resort to online simulations such as the circuit board (PBS LearningMedia, 2021a) or the melting and boiling (PBS LearningMedia, 2021b).

Experimental sciences and technologies have undoubtedly suffered from the health crisis, because having to deal with an environment without a laboratory, without a classroom or at least with limited access to scientific material can undermine creativity and offer less flexibility to teachers (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). Students may also feel that they will learn "less" or "less well" than if they had access to a more traditional laboratory.

However, by taking the time to reflect and explore new approaches, it remains possible to offer students the most effective, engaging and frequent experimental activities possible. 


Simpson, AM & Knox, PN (2020, October 13). Getting kids - and their caregivers - to practice STEM at home. The Conversation.

This text was first published in the magazine Specter of November 2021, the magazine of the Association for the teaching of science and technology in Quebec.

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