How do you teach a practical subject online?


Will students back in class I thought I’d reflect on and summarise how I coped from January till now attempting to teach a practical subject online.

Unlike the previous lockdown last March, where we had a special timetable, this time we kept to our normal timetables meaning six hours of live teaching per day. I felt it was my responsibility to make the hours the students spent with me as varied and interesting as possible. After all, they will have been staring at a screen for every other lesson. There must be better ways of doing things while keeping them engaged and learning for the hour. (No cop-out ‘go off and read about such-and-such’ in my lessons…)

As you might know, before I entered teaching I gave lectures, talks and training on creative thinking to businesses, especially scientific and technical or engineering companies. One of the highlights was flying out to Evian near Lake Geneva to keynote for pharmaceutical company Bayer for their global science research teams. So having to do this virtual teaching means I have two put my money where my mouth is and keep being creative in finding better ways to do everything I want to do. 

Here’s a summary of some of the ways I’ve been attempting to get the ideas of Physics over using multiple cameras with students watching on video via Microsoft Teams. As I’m based in the lab all week I can use the tools and equipment I normally have available there to get the most out of what I’m hoping to explain. 

Year 7

The most important thing in my mind for Year 7 is to make sure they’re engaged in the core ideas of science: critical thinking, problem solving and imagination. To that end we’ve been doing simple experiments that can be run safely at home. The main emphasis being their ability to carefully carry out an experimental procedure and report and interpret the results. We started the year looking at electronics, which would be really hands-on if we were all in school. But by teaching circuit diagrams I was able to get the students to design circuits which I would then build on camera for them. Another topic covered in lockdown was organism classification and adaption for which I ran various ‘design an animal’ games to see whose species survived extension as the environment changed. We also did a ‘show and tell’ fossil session while studying Mary Anning. Living on the coast, many of our students are avid fossil collectors.

Year 8

Year 8 have had the benefit of a practical led year last year and now need to examine more abstract concepts. But the relevance to their everyday lives is still there as we look at light: how it reflects, how it refracts, how lenses work, how to make a camera, how images are formed and the use of lasers. I can demonstrate a lot of these phenomenon live using various closeup and wide angle lenses in the lab and some examples of refraction can be set up and seen by them at home.

Year 9

We have begun the GCSE syllabus and some of the practical applications are more advanced and would be class demos in a normal situation. I’ve pre-made many videos on complex set ups on which questions can be based on as well as showing other elements live. We’re studying the Electromagnetic Spectrum – full of excitements and dangers as well as being key to our modern world of communications. They enjoyed me putting dangerous things inside a microwave oven and demonstrating a simple radio broadcasting across the lab.

Year 10

Alas, we would have been spending all term doing experimental design had we been in school. The plan was to investigate the effects of various factors on the distance a ski jumper travels. Instead we’re continuing the curriculum with our two hours a week split into demonstration and explanation of a phenomenon at the start of the week and then at in the second session, skills testing. I tasked them with designing experiments to investigate forces on a spring, balancing turning forces on a see-saw (moments) and acceleration of a car down a ramp.

Year 11

Our exam groups are in that curious limbo of wondering if we have enough evidence to award them the grade they deserve. With formal exams cancelled so early we do have more syllabus content to explain and understand. This gives us plenty of opportunities for grades to be enhanced as well as keeping brains working for those that will want to pursue a science A level next year. One of our groups is studying Forces and Motion, all Isaac Newton’s discoveries that gave us machines and transport. The other group is looking at Thermodynamics: heat energy and thermal properties of materials which we use in efficiency of heaters and insulation. With multiple cameras I can set up experiments to their design and the class can see what works and what needs to be improved. They designed an experiment which I ran as per their directions to find the specific heat capacity of water and the calculate the electrical cost of making a cup of tea.

A Level

With the use the Remarkable tablets (see this) we’re able to visually work through problems and exam questions as well as the setting up of equipment to see the effects or application of what we’re describing. We’re making good use of this time in the second year of A Level by bringing forward the topic that the students choose themselves which we usually do at the end of the year. This means that the student led individually based learning done at this time is an appropriate use of the current situation. This year our students have split into two groups to study Quantum Mechanics and Special Relativity in one group and Astrophysics in the other. 

So there we have it, plenty going on and lots to see and do. That’s why I love teaching physics.

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