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Virtual Education: How COVID-19 Has Affected STEM Education

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

Written By: Pari Latawa (Guest Writer)

Picture this: each member of the family, sitting in their rooms, tied to either work-related conference calls, online school classes, or virtual extracurricular activities. This has been the norm in my household over the last four months! As the Coronavirus pandemic has spread worldwide, and education programs have become entirely virtual, STEM education has been disrupted. Typical science-oriented programs rely heavily on hands-on, interactive experiences such as collaborating in groups to conduct lab experiments or using equipment to understand certain pieces of technology. With the switch to virtual learning, teachers and educators have adapted quickly to meet the needs of their audience. 

For subjects such as chemistry, the unexpected transition to virtual learning meant finding alternatives for in-person labs. Ms. Shontel Willie, a Pre-AP Chemistry and Forensics teacher at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in Austin, Texas, says that teachers had to find experiments that were online and easily accessible, which took thorough planning and research. 

"As educators, we struggle to provide our students with the materials for experiments at home, as, first, we don't want the students to experiment with hazardous chemicals at their [houses] without the safety of our lab and with teachers around, and second, various chemicals used in experiments can't be purchased just off the street," Ms. Willie says. "So, a lot of pre-planning goes into finding common household items that could replace chemicals in the chemical stockroom, even just for demonstrations, especially without having to purchase them. Currently, we are looking to transition to online simulations so students can get some type of lab experience.” 

Similarly, Ms. Gabryella Desporte, the program coordinator at Latinitas, a bilingual technology organization providing media and technology programs for girls, emphasizes the extra effort in re-planning and arranging infrastructure for the students to transition the already planned in-person summer camps to run virtually. 

"Thankfully, we have seen that some students had access to a computer or device to stay connected and also had experience using Zoom for previous classes they have taken. There have been instances where we did have to lend a laptop for students to use, but this also brought up the question [of] how we can continue to make sure the students we serve have access to devices," Ms. Desporte explains. "A long term goal is to have students have access to computers, and this was definitely a catalyst on how we can make this possible for any other potential online programming we might do." 

As the need for advanced technologies to access live-streaming, video conference, and webinar platforms grows, there is a greater emphasis on ensuring equal access to any necessary materials. 

"As [educators], we are concerned about equality and ensuring that all our students have access to course materials. We were lucky that we already had our coursebooks given and sent out to everybody [before COVID started]...Our chemistry team is [also] pretty good about using the BLEND tool and already had that system in place, which a lot of other teachers struggled with…[when switching to] online learning," Ms. Willie mentions. 

Although LASA chemistry students were fortunate to have been given access to course materials beforehand, many were not as lucky. A number of educators found themselves facing problems with access to technology. 

"In my situation, I don't have an easily accessible internet at home, so that was also frustrating for me...I couldn't be available online in a face-to-face situation as much as I wanted to due to my internet situation. Many of my students were...going through the same situation," Ms. Willie explains. 

In addition to troubleshooting technical problems and dealing with the direct impacts of inequity in tech, teachers now faced the challenge of figuring out the best blend of asynchronous (non-concurrent) learning and synchronous (online real-time) learning. Since school had already been in session, teachers and students had established sustainable and reliable relationships that allowed for asynchronous learning. 

"We started with synchronous learning for about two weeks but had to transition to asynchronous learning to offer flexibility for our students who were supporting their families with childcare needs or taking care of a sick family member," Ms. Willie says. "Asynchronous learning was also possible as our students felt comfortable coming to online office hours, emailing me, and coming to calls because of the relationships they had built with their teachers throughout the school year before the onset of COVID. We need to further work on building those relationships so that students feel comfortable asking questions and coming to virtual office hours for the next school year." 

Through the use of surveys, teachers and program coordinators are able to gauge the interest of students in course materials and virtual methodologies of teaching. They hope to change programs to encapsulate various new aspects of online learning, especially with a greater range of target groups and more diverse activities required. 

"It has been an exhilarating process to learn how to make digital camps effective, fun, and interesting for the rest of the students, and it has taught me a lot about maintaining quality while in a digital environment," Ms. Desporte says. "Something to potentially change in the virtual camp environment would be to make the curriculum more tutorial-based to make it more interactive for the students who are attending." 

Converting to virtual learning has unveiled a number of advantages and disadvantages of online learning.  One advantage is that hosting virtual programs allow for audiences from a diverse geographic span. Latinitas has been able to double their camp capacity and has been able to serve families from all across the United States. Along with the increased geographic reach, educators are finding that online learning has allowed them to develop deeper connections with students.