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How to S.T.E.A.M. up distance learning

For schools where traditional learning has been the norm, the transfer from the classroom to emergency remote learning has presented many practical challenges. Many of these have to do with access, such as connecting students to devices and the internet and finding resources that will work in digital form.

Read more: On challenges and opportunities: Emergency remote teaching

But in schools where learning is project-based (often the path chosen by institutions that are S.T.E.M. or S.T.E.A.M. centered), the challenges are also pedagogical. How does one transform a curriculum that is significantly reliant on hands-on, collaborative activities into one that can be meaningfully experienced at home?

As we’ve learned from the past few months, effective remote learning rarely happens without a clear vision and purposeful planning. In moving forward from emergency online lessons, we can look to the research to help us determine the vital criteria for a virtual curriculum.

How to S.T.E.A.M. up distance learning

Unsurprisingly, we find that what has proven to be successful for distance learning aligns well with the characteristics of authentic learning: real-world application, interdisciplinary learning, student-directed learning, open-ended inquiry, exploration and collaboration, community discourse, higher-order thinking, mastery of key concepts, and flexibility of learning environment and resources.

Read more: 9 Characteristics of authentic learning

The cornerstone of any outstanding S.T.E.A.M. unit is the authentic learning that occurs. By using the above foundational principles to plan, while simultaneously considering the unique demands of extended classrooms, exemplary S.T.E.A.M. projects are achievable even in the absence of physical labs and expensive materials.


S.T.E.A.M. units are generally interdisciplinary, so several instructors should be part of creating the initial blueprint to formulate objectives and expected outcomes. In some cases, community members and students may also be part of this initial process.

Since one of the challenges to distance learning is that parents and students can feel overwhelmed with single assignments filling up their inboxes, one of the important topics that needs to be discussed early in the planning stages is how assignments and assessments can be succinctly categorized and provided to students.

Some ways to minimize this are to organize the unit into a Hyperdoc, create a calendar with links, or provide a hyperlinked one-pager that includes a summary of the projects and a timeline — preferably giving students choices along the way.

Determining the essential question for the project can be done in several ways. Examples of projects can be found at PBL Works or on the High Tech High School page.

Keeping in mind that student voice and choice are essential, as well as real-world applications, it can be helpful to look to your specific school community for ideas. Local issues, such as new construction or environmental needs, offer a relevance and sense of urgency that can’t be found in building towers out of spaghetti.

Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

Sustained inquiry

Once the driving question has been chosen, as well as formative and summative assessments, planners will need to decide on what methods of sustained inquiry can support the students along this path. This will be one of the largest challenges of distance learning.

Sustained inquiry is the portion of S.T.E.A.M. learning where hands-on design and collaboration are of high value.

Read more: How distance learning fosters global collaboration

Instructors need to be mindful of the supplies that students will have available at home. Some websites that are geared toward home learning, offering simple instructions that often make use of household staples like cardboard or rubber bands, are: Design Squad, Instructables, and iMake at Home. Students who have a paucity of tangible materials can also make virtual designs using free online tools such as Tinkercad or Google Drawing.

To facilitate collaboration, classroom teachers often find that assigning specific roles to each student in the group can be helpful, which can also aid in keeping students focused on their individual online tasks.

Innovative student groupings can also assist in this area, such as pairing students who live near each other or allowing students who have access to different supplies relevant to the project to work together.

To collect data in one place, groups may share spreadsheets or Google Slides presentations. Students can do audio collaborations using one of these various online podcasting tools.

Read more: Podcasting in the classroom: The digital tool you should be using

For synchronous discussion, instructors can organize breakout rooms for small groups in the video chat tool of choice (Zoom, Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc.) or meet with groups at different times. Flipgrid is another useful way to organize student input, allowing users to each add their own video and comment on others.

As students research, instructors can offer resources targeted to specific group topics through sites like Newsela, which allows students to read at different levels, and EdPuzzle, where students can learn more from a wide array of videos at their own pace.

One particular advantage of distance learning is that a physical classroom is not needed to invite experts to speak with the class. In fact, using virtual tools will give you access to even more experts around the world. You can find professionals to connect with, such as scientists and journalists, through sites like Skype in the Classroom, The Pulitzer Center, and Nepris (there may be a fee attached). Also, museums and zoos are beginning to offer more online experiences as well, from virtual field trips to live animal webcams.

Frequent reflection during the journey is a vital part of learning that is often left out. Captioned photos are powerful reminders of the “real story” so that students don’t get writer’s block about their mistakes and successes during their project. This article by Karen Cornelius offers fifteen different options for digital reflection tools. Giving students choices of prompts or the media to use for their reflections will empower them to control their own narrative while giving teachers some insight into the depth of understanding.

Providing timely feedback throughout the project is essential, but can certainly take quite a bit of the instructors’ time for large groups of students. Matthew Johnson offers these ideas for providing “flash feedback”.

If Google Docs are being utilized, many teachers may already know how to use the comment tool to deliver text feedback, but this article from Eric Curts also gives advice on adding audio or video feedback. No matter what your feedback style is, the most important thing to remember is that it can’t wait until the project due date — when it’s too late for the students to make improvements.

Public presentations

When everything has been researched and prototyped, critiqued, and revised, a public product is key to helping students feel like their work is relevant and valued. Ideally, presentations would occur at a physical location related to the project, such as these incredible examples done by the students of my colleague, Kat Sauter. With a little ingenuity, you might even be able to plan something like this Art Drop Day organized by another colleague, Dan Mallette.

But there are other ways that the culmination of a unit can be celebrated if such events are impossible. Students can set up their own virtual museums or art exhibits using tools like CoSpaces. They can present online in the fun debate style of the podcast Smash Boom Best, and engage an audience by allowing them to vote through social media. Invite experts and special guests chosen by the students to watch and comment on a video stream of their presentations. Or, they can become young entrepreneurs by setting up their own online business websites.

Read more: Can you teach K-12 students to become entrepreneurs?

Closing thoughts

Although this may seem like quite a bit of work at the outset, setting up authentic online S.T.E.A.M. units will reap many benefits for the teachers, the students, and the community. After completing a unit, teachers will have an incredible resource that they can refine and use again, and students will have taken part in rich learning experiences that inspired curiosity and creativity they can leverage to their benefits in the future. Innovative ideas will make their way into the community, directly or indirectly, making the world a better place.