Adapting Teacher Training to a Digital Classroom

  • A teacher in the JSAT program wears goggles and a lab coat to demonstrate an activity with hot water.

Educators in this year’s Jefferson Lab Science Activities for Teachers program will learn how to better engage their students in science via the computer screen

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do just about everything, and the annual education program for teachers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility is no exception.

Every school year since 2005, the Science Education team at Jefferson Lab has helped teachers amp up their classroom skills through the Jefferson Lab (JLab) Science Activities for Teachers (JSAT) program. JSAT shows teachers of 5th, 6th, and 8th grade science how to translate hands-on learning activities into dynamic and engaging classroom lessons through twice-per-month sessions at Jefferson Lab from September to May.

However, just as students will likely begin this year learning remotely, so too will their teachers in JSAT. The Science Education team is revamping the program so that it can continue without teachers setting foot on-site.

We’re meeting an immediate need by delivering the program remotely,” said Lisa Surles-Law, Science Education team lead at Jefferson Lab. “Supporting teachers doesn’t have to stop because there is limited site access.”

JSAT’s main goal remains the same: to give teachers the knowledge and materials they need to lead their students through experiments and activities that teach concepts aligned with Virginia’s science Standards of Learning and the National Science Education Standards. Topics this year include matter, energy transfer, force, motion, magnetism and more.

Instead of spending evenings at the lab as in previous years, teachers will meet at their individual computers for live video chat lessons. In addition to downloadable resources, such as worksheets and videos, they’ll receive supplies for the activities via car lines on pick up days at the lab. To minimize physical contact, the Science Education team will stow the materials in the teachers’ trunks.

In preparation for the program, the Science Education team surveyed more than 300 previous participants of JSAT to identify their current challenges with remote teaching. Many teachers said that they feel uncomfortable interacting with students face to face through a computer screen. To help allay this concern, this year’s program will share ideas to make remote lessons more engaging for students, as well as ways to use different digital platforms creatively.

Although remote teaching unearths new issues for both teachers and the Science Education team, it also opens new avenues of communication. While JLab’s Science Education team is presenting via video, the teachers can type to chat about the material in real time.

Carol McKisson, a Science Education administrator at Jefferson Lab, believes JSAT’s revamped form will also encourage more networking among the teachers.

“Having a remote program might encourage more teachers to continue to collaborate through virtual channels with each other across different school divisions to share the best ways of reaching their students,” she said. “As a classroom teacher myself for 21 years, I often shared my ideas with other teachers, and I was thankful for what other teachers shared with me.”

The Science Education team is beginning to plan the first few weeks of JSAT, but the program will remain less set than previous years to better adapt to what happens with local schools. For instance, while the team already has the list of topics that will be covered due to the teachers’ academic requirements, the order will be decided as the year progresses with feedback from the teachers.

The usual first unit of JSAT, for example, tackles scientific inquiry with lots of hands-on experiments. Students in local school districts are likely to start the school year remotely, but students may have the opportunity to spend some time in classrooms later in the school year. The Science Education team wants to push the experiment-heavy first unit to later in the program, so that the teachers might be able to conduct those experiments with their students in person.

“In the past, we could easily plan along with the teachers’ pacing plans, but since we don’t know them at this point, we’re trying to allow ourselves to be a little more organic and meet the needs of the teachers in real time,” Surles-Law said.

The Science Education team will teach the teachers how to conduct every activity remotely and in the classroom to prepare for every possibility.

“I feel that JSAT will be meeting the needs of teachers if they are back in their classrooms or teaching via Zoom,” said Rhonda Bell, a Science Education administrator at Jefferson Lab.

To ensure that JSAT is meeting these needs, the Science Education team will survey participating teachers often throughout the program.

“The support that a teacher needs to do their job can never be too much, especially in this day and time with the challenges facing our teachers,” Surles-Law said. “We want to be the best support we can be.”

Just as teachers may move to the classroom, JSAT could shift back to in-person sessions at Jefferson Lab if that becomes safe. Surles-Law said the transition would be easy.

McKisson hopes JSAT will return to the lab soon.

“I love working with teachers and witnessing their excitement when they are given new and different ways to present material and watching their joy when they leave each session with an armload of supplies for their students,” she said.

JSAT accepts a maximum of 60 teachers (20 in each of the three grade levels). As usual, the program is limited to teachers in the Hampton Roads area this year.

“But I’m always planning and thinking ahead,” Surles-Law said. “And if we’re able to do JSAT in a remote environment, there’s no reason it can’t go national or global in the future.”

Typically, JSAT concludes with Teacher Night, a science-fair-esque event at the lab where teachers show off what they’ve learned to other teachers.

“Teacher night is a fun way to support our teachers that’s supposed to help rejuvenate supplies as well as enthusiasm,” Surles-Law said.

If an in-person Teacher Night is not in the cards, the Science Education team will host it remotely. But that, like all else, is uncertain. The only guarantee is that the Science Education team will do whatever it takes to make sure teachers in JSAT this year get what they need to teach their students, whether in person or through the computer screen.

Teachers can now apply for the 2020-2021 program through Sept. 4, 2020, here: https://education.jlab.org/jsat/jsat_application.pdf

The program is open to Virginia Region II teachers and is sponsored by the JSA Initiatives Fund Program, which supports programs, initiatives and activities that further the scientific outreach, and promote the science, education and technology missions of Jefferson Lab in ways that complement its basic and applied research focus. Initiatives Fund awards are for those projects that benefit the lab user community and that leverage commitments of others. Information about the JSA Initiatives Fund is online at: http://www.jsallc.org/IF/IFIndex.html.  

Further Reading:

JSAT Program

School-Year Teacher Program Revamped for Remote Learning

Finding a Path Forward: Jefferson Lab's Science Education Team Makes Learning Activities Available Online

Jefferson Lab Provides Virginia Teachers Virtual Teaching Resources
Jefferson Lab Science Education’s Teacher Tools

By Chris Patrick

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, 757-269-7263, kcarter@jlab.org

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.