Combining Distance Learning with Interactive, Hands-On STEM Projects

By Robert Low

Hands-on and Virtual: STEM Learning from a Distance edWebinar recording link


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One of the many challenges with distance learning is finding ways for students to engage in active and interpersonal learning experiences that increase their understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). These types of activities are especially important because they can make abstract scientific concepts more accessible, and engage diverse learners in using engineering processes that are helpful for 21st century careers.

During a recent edWebinar, Jill Olson, the Director of Operations and Professional Development for EiE, a curriculum developed by Boston’s Museum of Science, provided a framework for integrating hands-on, interactive STEM projects with distance learning.

Citing the work of Lev Vygotsky, Jill noted the importance of engaging students in discourse that helps them link thought to language and make new connections as they learn. She also explained how providing structured learning activities, in which students can draw on concepts, tools, and processes, helps the students make sense of educational experiences and build knowledge.

Creating a Generation of Problem Solvers

While using remote technologies for learning has limitations, Jill pointed out that students can still be provided with information and projects and then work together in small groups online, sharing ideas and collaborating before reporting their findings to the entire class.

To organize and facilitate this process, Jill recommends using the Engineering Design Process (EDP), a sequence that includes asking, imagining, planning, creating, and improving in order to achieve a goal. In addition to being something the students use, this can also be a process that teachers use and share with their students, in order to develop meaningful STEM experiences.

The EDP is a supportive and equitable process for students because there is no single right answer, and the development of many possible solutions is supported. This enables students with different approaches to see themselves as successful in their own ways. The EDP also removes stigma from failure by making it a natural and important part of the learning process.

Hands-on and Virtual: STEM Learning from a Distance edWebinar image


Implementing Effective STEM Activities

To develop remote STEM projects that meet students’ learning needs, Jill first recommends deciding which lessons and projects will work well remotely, and which ones need to be adapted or omitted. This will require mindful, strategic choices that include consideration of which materials students may have access to, and how the materials can be managed or stored over time.

A related consideration is the at-home environment in which the students do their work, as some or many students may have to share their space and devices. Explicit scheduling and instructions are therefore essential and should include how students can ask the teacher questions, how students should interact with each other during small-group work, and where and how students should turn in their findings.

A sample project Jill mentioned was developing a system to transport an object from one place to another. This could result in something as simple as sliding a toy on an inclined plane from a chair to the floor, or creating a pulley system to transfer food from one house to another.

Depending on the age of the students, Jill strongly recommends that they all use an engineering notebook or journal to record their thoughts, analyses, and reflections. Whether on paper or online, writing about their work over time provides opportunities for students to connect their thoughts to language, and make what they have learned more meaningful.

Through interactive, hands-on STEM projects, students are developing 21st century skills that can prove useful in higher education and successful careers. These types of projects can also prepare students to become engaged citizens who help to solve the scientific and technological problems our society will continue to face in the years ahead.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by EiE: Creating a Generation of Problem Solvers.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenter

Jill Olson is the Director of Operations and Professional Development for EiE of the Museum of Science, Boston. She joined the team in May of 2018. Before joining the Museum, Jill taught English Language Arts to 7th-grade students in her hometown north of Boston. She learned early on the importance of engaging every learner and helping each see their own potential through hands-on, collaborative, inquiry-based classroom experiences. After leaving the classroom, Jill worked in curriculum development and educational program management. She has supported educators in implementing digital and print products in classrooms and has designed and delivered the Professional Development to support them. She is passionate about improving educator and learner experiences. Jill oversees a team that is committed to providing professional development that directly supports educators in their unique and specific environments.

About the Host

Heather Gunsallus joined the Museum of Science in Boston during April 2018. She is passionate about building STEM programs that impact students’ and teachers’ lives, while building lifelong learners of STEM. Heather has 20 years of experience in building teams and products in educational technology. She has extensive experience in building and implementing both print and digital products for today’s users. Heather has managed product and curriculum development, professional development and sales teams, and was even a classroom teacher. Heather is inspired by the possibilities of our future generation.

Join the Community

STEM Learning: Full STEAM Ahead is a free professional learning community on that provides educators, curriculum leaders, and industry members with a place to collaborate on bringing more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into the classroom.

EiEEiE®, the Museum of Science, Boston’s standards-aligned, teacher-tested preK-8 engineering curricula, develops foundational skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects for all students. The research-based, hands-on curricula are designed to best innovate for the reality of today’s educational landscape and to engage all students.



Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.