Four college STEM leaders share how COVID changes can impact access and equity

From changing pedagogy to installing virtual internships, professors note key lessons learned from pandemic shifts.
By: | February 14, 2022
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For college STEM faculty leaders, the past two years have been a grand experiment. Hit with a knee-buckling curveball called COVID-19, they’ve had to test changes to pedagogy, modality, peer-to-peer interaction and even internships to see whether their new practices could work.

The results of those trial runs have gone far beyond expectations, so much so that their new innovations and strategies not only have stuck but likely will last far into the future.

Panelists from four universities joined colleagues from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in sharing their amazing stories of success during the recent American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting. All of them had taken part in a project developed through the National Science Foundation’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education community, with the goal of identifying ideas that best facilitated increased access and equity.

One professor at the University of Central Florida completely revamped his physics course design to the delight of students. A chemistry professor at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo focused on assessment and saw strong outcomes. Two leaders at Northeastern University in Boston took their co-op program virtual and noticed that experiential learning could happen remotely. And Oregon State University made significant changes that bolstered student success in its STEM Leaders program.

“During COVID as students were remote, we asked students if they felt connected to OSU, and more than half of them didn’t,” said Stephanie Ramos, Associate Director of Undergraduate Research at Oregon State. “We know that connectedness and a sense of belonging play a key role in retaining students, particularly those from underrepresented and minoritized backgrounds. So we asked, how we could help students feel connected to their peers?”

So Oregon State developed a STEM Buddies system that helped match up students with similar majors and research into cohorts. By the spring, 82% reported feeling connected. And after further tweaks to scheduling and connections, it saw further gains: Its retention rate among the STEM leaders was 95%. It also began to look at students they were not accepting and meeting with them individually.

“It’s not something that we’ve done before. It’s more intensive advising and meeting students where they’re at,” she said. “The outcome of that and getting students connected means retention down the road.”

At UCF, physics professor Zhongzhou Chen said he saw positive results from several changes he made to his course design, which included moving from synchronous learning to self-paced modules, replacing office hours with Microsoft Teams channels and chats, and eliminating “rigid high-stakes” exams and due dates to more frequent quizzes and soft due dates. What Chen observed was that there wasn’t a large change in exam scores, students loved the flexible due dates and chat functions and he got rich data to assess student behavior.

“The process taught me that equity and accessibility are grounded in every student’s unique life story because students started to share their life stories with me on chat much more so than previously,” he said, adding, “and fighting cheating with an increased level of proctoring is a lose-lose game for all. Let’s find some more innovative ways to solve this rather than putting multiple video cams on.”

At Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, professor Anya Goodman turned to oral exams “to intellectually engage students.” She managed to scale it in a class of 54 by breaking them into groups of six. They practiced for exams together and all shared in the process of helping add to or correct questions that were posed by Goodman. The process was terrifying at first, but by allowing students to engage, voicing disagreement in practice and learning through research and scientific discovery, it became more impactful than traditional exams. As for grading, she said “our Center for Teaching and Learning is now organizing discussion groups around grading for equity. I look forward to that culture change coming.”

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Perhaps a more challenging project was the one implemented by Northeastern. The university originally adopted a virtual internship platform in 2017 that effectively became its model when the pandemic hit. They managed to scale the program to 16 other institutions, including Oregon State. They built a toolbox for instructors to continue to connect to students and gave them a dashboard to help monitor skill development and support them. A significant challenge was dreaming up projects that students could do within specific timeframes that were beneficial to them and to companies. It worked so well that institutions will be able to take those frameworks and install them beyond the pandemic.

“Oregon State allowed the students to continue their internship during the school year, and Wake Tech embedded internships into a course, as a final project or a capstone experience.,” said Kemi Jona, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Digital Innovation and Enterprise Learning at Northeastern. “All of these flowers started blooming in ways that we never really anticipated or expected. Once we did the training, it was, go crazy, find places where this works for you in your institution.”