The COVID-19 crisis has presented unique challenges to education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the past year. Research on STEM education during the pandemic has shown sharp drops in STEM program enrollments along with similar declines in student focus and motivation to participate in distance learning activities on these subjects.
Lack of access to classrooms and labs, funding shortages, limited access to educational tools and software and lack of motivation in distance learning have all greatly impacted STEM education. The rapid changes to learning throughout the pandemic have challenged STEM educators to be adaptable and seek resourceful, innovative and stimulating ways to engage students while keeping them safe.
Accounting for STEM Inequities
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted some communities more than others. Schools find it difficult to support students with special needs and disabilities, those living in homes with working parents and students with limited access to the internet and devices. While STEM educators have already been working to address racial and gender inequities in the field, they face widening gaps in education exacerbated by the pandemic. While many schools are essentially in survival mode trying to meet the students’ basic needs, STEM learning offers unique potential for engaging students.
During the pandemic, educators have addressed educational inequities by offering opportunities for internet and computer access to students in every environment. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Brian Williams, better known by students all over the country as Dr. Science. Williams has worked for years to ensure all children have access to an excellent education and advocate for young people in urban communities as a professor and director of the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence. During the pandemic, Williams has reimagined STEM education promotion and developed a video series to highlight how science can be fun and accessible from anywhere and for anyone.
Redefining the Lab
The pandemic has made valuable time in the laboratory virtually impossible for many STEM learners. Social distancing and sanitary measures are difficult to maintain in lab spaces, where large groups of people often work in close contact and utilize the same equipment. Many educators have gotten creative with their idea of what constitutes a lab, utilizing virtual laboratories like those created by STEM Ecosystems and take-home laboratory kits.
Laboratory classes that require expensive technical and safety equipment are simulated online, where students at home can watch their teachers conduct experiments virtually. Even STEM subjects that do not require lab equipment can often be translated into at-home work. Some labs have shifted research toward more online-friendly topics like data analysis. The University of California at Irvine, for instance, recently hosted its first-ever Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Week, a virtual event for researchers, students, industry partners and other GIS professionals and learners to celebrate all things mapping and geospatial.
Turning to Nature-Based Learning
STEM education does not always need enclosed spaces to enhance learning. Many STEM educators are repurposing outdoor spaces and building lessons that encourage students to get out in nature and use the world around them to learn. For instance, some library systems have repurposed and distributed Science Action Club’s science kits with nature-based themes to students. Some libraries even created multi-media guides to help parents utilize the kits to guide their children in science lessons at home.
Creative resources for nature-based STEM learning are also supported by collaborations like the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative and the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Greening STEM Hub. These initiatives are designed to support school systems and provide educators and families with tools and resources to engage STEM learners of all ages by focusing on real-world challenges in the natural environment.
Creative solutions like these hold great potential for reaching students and helping them stay focused and motivated to engage in STEM subjects.