Read How This Teacher is Keeping Her Students Engaged in STEM Education Through A Pandemic

The Smithsonian Science Education Center has started a new blog series to understand how Smithsonian Science for the Classroom is impacting students and teachers in schools across the country.

For our second story, we spoke with Elizabeth Sheppard, a first-grade science teacher in the Chittenango School District in New York. With 18 years of teaching experience, she also serves as a science education coordinator and was a former field tester for Smithsonian Science for the Classroom. As teachers navigate remote and in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re committed to understanding how teachers, like Ms. Sheppard, are keeping their students engaged.


How have you gotten creative with keeping in-person and remote students engaged during the pandemic?

The beginning of the year was a tough adjustment. It required a lot of support from families. Fortunately, in our situation, the parents of our virtual students chose that model voluntarily knowing that they would need to provide more support. It was a balance of getting kids engaged and figuring out what that looked like for online students. I feel like my kids are really thriving and making progress now. The data indicates that they’re on grade level or beyond for almost all my students. I feel like we finally got it up and running and now it works.

How would you describe your experiences with teaching Smithsonian Science for the Classroom?

A colleague and I had the opportunity to field test a unit two years ago and that experience made us both really dive into the material to get to know it well. For first grade, the two unit available right now are How Can We Send a Message Using Sound? and How Can We Predict When the Sky Will Be Dark?. My favorite lesson from the unit is having the students evaluate moon models. That is a fantastic lesson for numerous reasons, but I think it’s a great experience to have the kids introduced to what a model is, what it does and to use critical thinking and background knowledge to choose the best model. It’s pretty high level for first graders but they rise to the occasion.

What impact has Smithsonian Science for the Classroom had on your students?

Approaching science instruction this way gives kids a voice that wouldn’t necessarily have a voice in the classroom. They may not be the strongest or the most outspoken, but it gives you a venue—if you take advantage of it—to share everyone’s thinking, ideas and observation. All students’ learning contributes to the greater knowledge of the classroom. [This curriculum] encourages that and it’s accessible for all students in a way that other science curriculum didn’t offer. It challenges them to start having higher ordered thinking skills when they’re five and 6-years-old, which is pretty fantastic.

What value does that provide to you as a teacher?

These curriculums offer the opportunity to build in connection. One of the things I run into most being an elementary science teacher is the argument of “we don’t have time for science.” I think there’s an argument to be made that these units, with all of the discourse, notetaking and meaning-making that students are asked to do, is that it’s not just science instruction. They’re also using language to learn how to make a claim, defend it and respectfully disagree with one another. I’ve noticed that more reluctant kids are willing to speak up more and share their ideas because it’s more authentic to them.

How have you navigated teaching this curriculum during the pandemic?

I recently worked with a group of teachers on a lesson study and their biggest problem was having enough materials for every kid without having to share. That was a big problem at the beginning of the year, but teachers have found ways to navigate that. It did take some creative thinking, but I was able to recreate the experiment and show the kids the boxes without them touching or holding it. Then I just used my camera phone as if it was their point-of-view so they could see what it would be like if they were holding the boxes themselves. Some of the curriculum is more challenging to adapt, like the sound unit, because it requires a lot of engineering. Having remote students who don’t have access to the materials has been a challenge for some in those lessons.

How do you envision the future of science education?

I hope there’s more resources like these [Smithsonian Science for the Classroom] that really encourage an inquiry-based approach to learning and for students to build their own knowledge from their experiences. I hope it’s a shift toward that direction because we know that’s what they need further down the road to be successful in the STEM field.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.