Virtual Learning Offers New Ways to Stretch and Grow


Virtual Learning Offers New Ways to Stretch and Grow

May 19, 2021

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When classrooms go remote, organizations find new ways to bring the fun.

Partnership between Brookings School District and the Children’s Museum offers new ways to teach education standards.

“Good morning! What did you have for breakfast today?”

That’s the cheerful voice of Educator Lauren Dietz from the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. Prior to 2020, she would have been addressing students who were visiting the museum for a camp or field trip, but this communication is taking place through a computer screen using Zoom, a software platform for video and audio conferencing.

Woman smiling sitting at laptop surrounded by colorful craft materials.
Educator Lauren Dietz welcomes students to their virtual classroom via Zoom, a software platform for video and audio conferencing.

One by one, students appear on the screen each in a small rectangle. They smile, wave – some more awake than others – and acknowledge their teachers and classmates even though they are miles away. This is how a typical STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) challenge for virtual learners starts.

When the COVID-19 pandemic created virtual classrooms and halted field trips for in-person classrooms, school districts had to get creative in offering modified ways to meet education standards and provide one-of-a-kind, engaging experiences to enhance learning.

The Children’s Museum had similar rethinking to do. With the indoor exhibits closed for safety, they had to reimagine their role in the community as they traditionally relied on in-person visits to fulfill their mission to spark imagination and learning for children and grown-ups.

Map of the US with each state colored.
Students took a virtual road trip while learning more about each state and region of the United States.

That’s where a partnership between the Brookings School District and the Children’s Museum made perfect sense offering two organizations a way to reach out and support the community’s youngest constituents, especially during a time when anxiety and stress has increased.

“We brainstormed the best ways to support Brookings students by creating engaging, creative activities based on South Dakota education content standards,” said Dietz. “These resulting virtual STEAM challenges marry the Museum’s philosophy of being open-ended and hands-on with the ability to support teachers who are learning how to adjust their teaching styles for a virtual experience.”

With grant funding through the South Dakota Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum created a website where teachers could review lesson plans for students in kindergarten through third grade. Once the teacher selected the lesson, museum educators would teach it offering hands-on learning from afar with items typically found around the house.

“The partnership between the Brookings School District and the Children’s Museum provides students and staff with the opportunity to think creatively, be innovative, and extend learning beyond the classroom,” said Dr. Michelle Vande Weerd, director of curriculum, instruction, and continuous improvement for the Brookings School District. “We are grateful that the museum has found ways to connect and be innovative through the pandemic.”

Two computer monitors, one showing individual students the other showing a PowerPoint lesson.
Virtual lessons include a variety of activities. Students have enjoyed playing quiz games, creating marble mazes, and even designing catapults.

For Museum Guest Experience Manager Charles Stuart, it also allowed him to find purpose in his work that typically relied on in-person museum visits. “I’ve been impressed by the ability of the children to interact and learn through the computer,” he said. “It’s fun to see how technology allows us to make connections and accomplish goals, all while keeping the kids engaged.”

Second- and 3rd-Grade Teacher Autumn Peterson has invited the museum to take part in her lesson plans on a weekly basis. “Not only do the students look forward to these Zooms each week, but I do as well,” she said. “It helps me as a teacher get more of an outside lens of watching my learners think and process information. Plus, the students also get the feel of being on a virtual field trip each week with some awesome teachers.”

Lessons have included a variety of activities from playing quiz games, creating marble mazes, building boats, creating weather shelters, and even designing catapults. These activities have gone over well with students.

“We did a personal narrative essay about the kids’ favorite part of their entire virtual school year, and a majority of the students chose the Children’s Museum lessons,” said 3rd-grade teacher Lara Langlett.

To date, the Museum team has reached nearly 1,000 students teaching over 70 virtual classes.

“At first, teaching virtually was hard to wrap my head around. But we are finding success in this model,” said Dietz. “The students we see are wanting to share and are getting excited about what they are learning. And we still offer fun and playfulness!”

And if not being physically active is a downside of virtual learning, Lauren has something to say about that as she continues her virtual lesson after her breakfast inquiry:

“Alright, it’s time to stretch now, too. Stretching is so good for you!” she said.

Which, come to think of it, is what has happened throughout the entire pandemic—everyone, whether it’s teachers, children, or organizational leaders—has learned the importance of stretching.