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Virtual Classroom Series: Teaching High School Chemistry Without Hands-On Experiments

Emily Files
McKenzie King (second to top) and co-teacher Jennifer Bennett keep their cameras on during classes, but students keep their cameras off and have just avatars showing.

Many schools in Milwaukee have spent the entire first half of the school year online, as a precaution against the coronavirus. WUWM has been visiting virtual classrooms to see how teachers are adapting.

McKenzie King, a chemistry teacher at Carmen Southeast High School in Milwaukee, says some learning experiences are impossible to recreate virtually. Right now, she’s teaching her students about chemical compounds. It’s usually one of her favorite units.

Credit Courtesy McKenzie King
McKenzie King, a chemistry teacher at Carmen Southeast High School, teaches from home using multiple computer screens.

“In the classroom, we just like throw out 16 various substances and kids are moving around the classroom and trying to test them and notice different patterns,” King says. “So they’ll melt them and see what temperature it melts at, or dissolve them in water, conduct electricity.”

Hands-on labs normally make up the bulk of King’s chemistry class. But she can’t do that when students are learning from home.

“The whole point of chemistry, and science in general, is applying it to the real world. But now we’re cut off from the real world,” King says. “It’s just one of those things, at the end of day it’s not going to be as successful. Kids might not be able to answer ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’ Because it’s not as impactful.”

In one recent Zoom class with her sixth period tenth graders, King was teaching about the properties of sugar and salt.

“Right now we just want to see can sugar, when it’s dissolved in water, conduct electricity? Can salt? And can water just do it by itself?" she asks.

Since they can’t do in-person experiments, King uses a virtual simulation, where you can click a picture of sugar or salt, add to water, and see if it conducts electricity.

“Alright so we’re putting the connectivity meter in… ta da!” The salt water does conduct electricity, lighting up a light bulb in the computer simulation.

“Whoa! Is that light bulb on?” Jennifer Bennett, a paraprofessional and King’s teaching partner, responds.

Credit Screenshot
King uses virtual simulations like this one in place of the hands-on experiments her classes would do if they were in school in-person.

The students react too, but in the Zoom chat box. For most of the class, her students keep their microphones muted and cameras off. King says, it does feel demoralizing sometimes to look at all the black boxes.

“We had more cameras at the beginning of school,” King says. “I think kids being kids, they’re testing out what they’re comfortable with. And if the majority of people have their cameras off, they’re not going to opt into doing that.”

But, King says, you have to pick your battles. And she doesn’t want to goad her students into keeping their cameras on when they are participating in other ways.

“You have to frame, what’s a realistic expectation or what’s a win?” King says. “If 20 out of 23 students are responding in the chat frequently throughout the entire class, that’s a win. They’re there, they’re learning. Do I prefer to know what they look like? Absolutely.”

You can tell that King and Bennett are building relationships with students despite the limitations of the chat box. During one class, King asks students silly questions while they’re waiting for others to finish their work.

“If you saw Ms. Bennett in the grocery store, do you say hello or do you just dip?” King asks. Some of the students jokingly respond that they would ignore Bennett if they saw her in public.

“I’m not really a science fan, but I can say that chemistry isn’t bad,” says Karla, a sophomore at Carmen and one of King’s students. “Actually Ms. King and Ms. Bennett make it fun, that’s why I like chemistry.”

Karla says online learning is stressful sometimes because she has three younger siblings also in virtual school who she helps. “I’m kinda tired of being at home all day, doing nothing other than school,” she says.

That feeling is shared by teachers.

“The weight of virtual learning, I feel like, is a little more draining because the joys of in-person learning are not truly present,” King says. “You have to look for them and reframe them just like your teaching. So if I felt tired in-person, I definitely feel fatigued right now.”

King says, she still likes her job but it’s because the fulfillment of working with students outweighs the many challenges of virtual teaching.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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