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Sanford Lab E&O supports SD educators in semester like none other

From virtual expeditions to subterranean labs and black holes via Zoom, we've transformed our approach to STEM education. 

When Ashley Armstrong started teaching eighth grade science at Huron Middle School in September, she faced a new challenge.

Her incoming students had completed seventh grade from home after South Dakota schools closed in March due to Covid-19 concerns. As the fall semester began, some students opted to continue learning remotely, while others returned to the classroom with masks, social distancing and cleaning protocols.

At first, Armstrong juggled virtual and in-person classes at the same time, but she couldn’t give either group her full attention. So, she resolved to double her efforts. She taught her in-person classes, then recorded the lessons for her virtual students. Even then, when she could fully devote her attention to the students in front of her, Armstrong faced barriers. 

“Even in person, they only see half of your face, and you only see half of theirs,” Armstrong said. “Being able to read a student’s face is important; it’s how you gauge understanding. And distance limits the personal connections that are otherwise built, the relationships that encourage students to ask questions and to stay after class to get extra help.”

Armstrong was particularly exasperated when trying to create engaging STEM lessons that aligned with Covid-19 restrictions in the classroom.

“As a science teacher, I know that students learn best when interacting with their environments and with other students. And it was honestly painful for me to write the lesson plans, knowing that students weren't going to get the full experience,” Armstrong said. “My goal has always been to send students on to their next endeavors, whatever that might be, fully prepared. And I felt like I was failing to do that.”

More than a case study 

Armstrong is not alone in her frustrations; teachers across the state, nation and globe have struggled to engage with students while wearing masks, keeping their physical distance, cleaning classrooms, and incorporating new technology. While these measures may be best practice for slowing the spread of Covid-19, they clash with best practices for STEM learning.

“Kids learn socially, through experiences and conversations. The person that fosters and creates those learning environments is the classroom teacher. And there’s no way to completely replicate all that a teacher does when working in a remote environment,” said Deb Wolf, director of Education and Outreach (E&O) at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab).

For more than a decade, the E&O team has worked to support STEM educators in our region. The team develops curriculum modules, classroom presentations and field trip experiences—all built around the unique world-leading  sciene and engineering taking place at Sanford Lab.

When South Dakota schools closed in March, ushering learners into online classrooms, the E&O team knew the demands on educators had changed drastically, and so had their role as educator supporters. This year challenged them to transform their support into virtual formats and find new ways to connect with teachers.

Connecting to classrooms

In the past, the E&O team has done in-school presentations and hosted field trips at Sanford Lab to create meaningful experiences with students. This year, the team rewrote their presentations, tailored activities to virtual formats and used 360 virtual tours to invite students to Sanford Lab.

According to Wolf, the virtual format made field trips and presentations a more equitable option for students and teachers across the state.

“Even before the pandemic, there were a whole lot of students that couldn't jump on a bus and come to Sanford Lab. And students under 18 couldn’t go underground,” Wolf said. “Learning how to leverage technology to give more students that experience, to make it more equally available, has been a huge step forward.”

In October, Armstrong invited Peggy Norris, deputy director of E&O at Sanford Lab, to present about black holes. In one day, Norris explored on the mysterious nature of black holes with nearly 200 middle school students.

“They were so intrigued—black holes were such an abstract concept for them. At the end, I wish we would have planned for more time for questions, because my students had so many questions,” Armstrong said. “And for geographic and economic reasons, a lot of my students may never travel to the Black Hills or visit Sanford Lab. They thought it was so cool that I was friends with a scientist and that they could talk to someone from across the state!”

The E&O team also creates and maintains dozens of curriculum units that are aligned with South Dakota science standards, include lesson plans and facilitator guides, and provide students with engaging learning opportunities that inspire students to ask questions. This fall, more than 700 students have participated in E&O’s curriculum units at 13 South Dakota schools.

Armstrong is co-writing a new curriculum unit as part of the SD EPSCoR grant that E&O received in 2019. “Having someone hand you a package that outlines the standards the lesson will cover, all the resources, and lesson plans for each day — that is a huge thing right now for any teacher,” Armstrong said.

Connecting educators to educators  

This summer, the E&O team also created a virtual approach to their teacher professional development (PD) programs. The team hosted seven multi-day PD programs, building professional relationships between nearly 250 teachers.

Wolf’s team used virtual programming to demonstrate new techniques that teachers could use in their own classrooms. “We used strategies that are useful with adults but can be converted quickly and easily into strategies that teachers can use with their students as well,” Wolf said.

And just like the virtual presentations and field trips, the E&O team found that virtual programming increased equity of access for educators across the state. The team plans to incorporate virtual options in future teacher PD programming.

Armstrong, who participated in E&O’s PD programming in 2018, said she has benefited from the professional community during this difficult year.

“The biggest help has been the community,” Armstrong said. “When I can’t come up with an idea for a lesson or I’ve had a bad day, the E&O programs I’ve been a part of have created this team that I can go to, and I know that they are going through the same thing. I appreciate that support.”

Supporting the classroom teacher

A recent video from Sanford Lab details the E&O team’s ongoing efforts to support K-12 educators. Although the video was conceptualized before the Covid-19 pandemic, it captures the commitment to supporting high-quality, engaging and equitable STEM opportunities that has continued to motivate the team this year.

“The pandemic has reinforced our knowledge that we will never replace the classroom teacher. It has shown us how pivotal, instrumental, and essential the work of the classroom teacher is.” Wolf said. “If we want to truly transform STEM education, it is through the work of educators. Therefore, we need to work with and support classroom teachers.”

Education and Outreach at Sanford Lab from Sanford Lab on Vimeo.