It’s a brisk afternoon in late November. Many of Seattle’s trees have shed their summer leaves. But India Carlson is surrounded by lush green plants.

Every two weeks or so, Carlson, a botany and environmental horticulture teacher at Ballard High School, dons a mask and gloves, carts out trays of plants to the back of the school and awaits her students. She hands out colorful coleus, catnip, geraniums and succulents.

The teens arrive one by one, have quick chats with the teacher they mostly see over video lessons, and depart with new flora to care for at home. On a few occasions, she’s dropped off plants at her students’ homes.

“My expectations of being able to cover a specific amount of content? That’s out the window,” said Carlson, who has run the school’s greenhouse for 13 years. “My whole thing is, I want students to be interested in and engaging with science on a personal level.”

This is science class during the pandemic: teachers turning typically hands-on lessons on their head, and finding lively ways to engage students learning remotely. 

A second grade teacher in the Edmonds School District found a way to translate her students’ love of bears into an online lesson: She’s teaching them how to make toys out of natural materials for orphaned bear cubs living at a local animal shelter. In Bellevue, a middle school teacher brings in a guest astronomer to her virtual classes and incorporates information about the coronavirus. And a Franklin High teacher works in ways to check on his students’ mental and emotional well-being while also doing online simulations and other lessons.

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At a time when the importance of rigorous scientific inquiry is on a public stage, science teachers say they are also taking up new roles as their students ask tough, pandemic-related questions. 

When will kids get vaccinated? When will it be safe to return to school?

“We have real-life science going on,” said Cheryl McClure, who teaches science to sixth and seventh graders at International School in Bellevue. “I do want them to recognize that it’s not guess work, it’s actually based on data and evidence and trials. And that we can have confidence in it.”

Sharing excitement

The Ballard High greenhouse is home to pineapple plants and a kumquat tree. Carlson has an affinity for unusual plants — especially ones you’re unlikely to find in Seattle.

“Mostly it’s cloned plants, though, that I started cloning before school started,” Carlson said. “I knew I wanted to give plants to students.”

If her class was in person, you’d find Carlson and her students in the greenhouse or the school garden, getting dirt under their nails as they plant food or work on experiments. These days, Carlson visits school a few times a week solo, to water plants and feed the lizards that live in her classroom. 

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With a pair of other horticulture teachers in the district, she’s working on assembling hydroponic grow kits for her students, including plastic containers, nutrient solutions, grow lights and other materials. But sourcing the supplies has proved challenging because of supply chain bottlenecks during the pandemic, she said. 

For now, her students have seeds and soil. They check in with a classmate — their plant buddy — about how their plants are doing. And Carlson polls her class regularly to find out what they want to learn next. On tap: medicinal plants, how to identify different species and how to grow food.

“I’m trying to have students think about [how] science is everywhere, and it’s part of everything we do,” Carlson said. “A big part of it is me sharing my excitement.”

Hands-on at home

Edmonds teacher Jennie Warmouth is making the most of her young students’ interest in wildlife. 

Last school year, Warmouth got a taste for virtual instruction when she went on an expedition near the North Pole as part of a fellowship through National Geographic and taught her Spruce Elementary second graders remotely. While there, and when she returned, she taught her class about climate issues and other challenges facing the Arctic. 

Back then, her students were transfixed by polar bears. She didn’t see that many, but she took lots of pictures and came home with exciting stories. 

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Her new class of students has similar interests. But she needs a bit of magic — a bit of imagination — to make the lessons as vibrant, she said. “My task has been to elevate and transcend the two dimensions of our computer screen.”

One day in mid-December, Warmouth is online with her second graders, who are learning about black bears. A nearby animal shelter called PAWS is caring for a few cubs and regularly shares videos of the bears’ progress with Warmouth’s class. 

“Today we’re going to consider one of the skills our three little baby black bears need to learn before they’re released back into the wild,” Warmouth says over Zoom. The class goal is to talk about how to make toys designed to help the cubs with survival skills. The students are designing their own, using materials approved by the shelter’s vet. “We want to think like bears,” Warmouth says.

Her students begin to call out ideas.

“There’s a connection to black bears and dogs and cats. That they’re all, like, carnivores,” one child says. Warmouth gently reminds the class that black bears eat meat and plants. They’re omnivores, she says.

“I know that they are hibernating, and whenever the people go in to feed the baby bears they wear a bear costume and pretend to be their mother,” another child says.

Says Warmouth: “I love imagining that.”

Science says

Over the summer, McClure and her middle school teacher colleagues weighed the inevitable. 

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“What if our sixth graders start asking a lot of questions about coronavirus?” she said.

McClure, who teaches life and earth sciences in Bellevue, knew that conversations about the coronavirus — over screens, and without enough context about her student’s personal lives — could be tricky. When her students raise questions, McClure says she gives straightforward, age-appropriate answers.

“No scare tactics,” she said. 

And teaching about coronavirus is sometimes a natural fit with her lessons on the human body and immune response. “Now they understand, OK, if the body comes in contact with a virus, whether it’s the flu virus or any virus, this is what the body is going to do. It demystifies it,” she said. “As they’re learning, they’re getting their questions answered.”

Ray Tsang, who teaches physics and chemistry to Franklin High teens in Seattle, says checking in with his students emotionally is more urgent than faithfully following the curriculum. Many come from low-income families and work part- or full-time to help supplement their family’s income. Some have contracted the coronavirus or have family members who were affected. 

“One day [a student] wasn’t participating as much and she was like, ‘Sorry, I’m really tired, I got diagnosed with coronavirus,’” he said. They spoke after class. “I just wanted to check in. Have you gone to the doctor? Do you have resources to deal with this?”

He shares resources, too, such as Washington’s new COVID-19 notification app, WA Notify.

“Of course, learning the [course] content is very important,” he said. “But it’s not more important than understanding the pandemic that’s happening right now.”