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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. 

"I felt like I was able to get in touch on a more personal level with all my students and check in with them more consistently and on a personal level than I necessarily could do in the classroom because of the personal aspect of those online discussion boards and online surveys," Ms. Willie said. "When we do get back in the classroom, I'm definitely going to incorporate those surveys more so I can always leverage the positive benefits of online check-ins with students all the time." 

There were also certain troughs: with [a] broader reach and more programs, planning events became more difficult. It was vital to ensure that the programs offered were of the highest caliber. The Latinitas team worked hard to ensure that their summer programs were run efficiently and successfully; the Code Chica program, to inform girls about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in order to create websites, and the Design Chica program, for girls to explore UX and web design, were just two of the many programs having to be re-planned. 

"We have to really ramp up our needs to include as much support. This has been the biggest challenge--to ensure that we are still delivering the best quality programming possible," Ms. Desporte says. 

During these times of uncertainty, it is important that helpful technology programs offered by organizations such as Latinitas continue to provide support and opportunities to underserved girls in need. As long as these programs continue, girls will continue to be inspired and encouraged to pursue their dreams despite setbacks. Yet in school classrooms, there have been various moments when students showed a decline in participation in classroom activities. This seems to be the result of the loss of a sense of rapport now that teachers and students are unable to meet in person. 

"In some sessions, we didn't have as much engagement in demonstrations as we would have expected. In [the] future, we need to include the demonstration in our screencasts as well as chunking the screencasts so students could watch shorter videos instead of an hour and a half sessions," Ms. Willie says. "One of the worst aspects as a teacher for online classes was when a student didn’t show up or I didn't hear from a student in spite of continually trying to reach out to the family. It was the stress of not knowing if they were okay or not." 

Learning from the late spring and summer school and program sessions, educators and program coordinators continue to explore ways to better increase audience engagement. The looming fear of not being able to contact students is always present, yet these are the realities as we continue to live through a pandemic. From these experiences, we learn that it is important for teachers to continually check in with students, even if it isn’t directly academic-related. 

"It's important to build relationships to create the best learning environment by checking in with the students constantly, knowing what's happening in their day to day life, the stresses they are going through and knowing them is a big part of the educational relationships," Ms. Willie explains. "The online platform made it easier to check in with students easily more on that personal level where you could have those surveys and private conversations with all students whereas, in the school day, it's harder to keep in touch with everyone." 

For future programs and other organizations looking to host virtual events, there are various pieces of advice to consider. First is realizing the importance of catering to the needs of the audience: "Evaluate the needs you have for the families you wish to serve. Assess their needs through surveys, brainstorm, discuss, and learn from your peers to figure out the best way to deliver your programs," Ms. Desporte says. 

Additionally, it is important to empathize with students and allow leniency in difficult situations while also allowing educators leniency as they continue to adjust and learn to a new teaching environment. 

"One of the most important aspects is definitely being patient and giving students the flexibility to choose from multiple options, whether that be screencasts, readings, coursebook guided lessons, etc.," Ms. Willie says. "Also, forgive yourself because this is all a learning process. Continue to grow and always look for ways to improve from the previous lesson. Constantly survey to mold and change lessons and grow each week. We got a lot of good feedback on choice boards and having the flexibility to have a voice and choice for seeking to work in the desired and most suitable format." 

With virtual learning becoming the norm for future educational services, it is vital to reflect and consider various ideas to improve literacy and dissemination of knowledge. The shift to virtual learning has also demonstrated the rapidly evolving nature of the 21st century and how tech-driven our society is becoming. 

"The blended styles of virtual and in-person learning is definitely where we are headed to as a norm," Ms. Willie says.

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