The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted manyscience, engineering, technology and math (STEM) programs across the country. Not only were program facilitators determined to keep their programs going, but parents and their children were too. This was especially important to the parents of children in largely Black and low-income areas. Yet, despite these aspirations, many STEM programs were severely affected by the crisis. It was not just because of the absence of in-person instruction. When in-person schooling was permitted, social distancing guidelines meant that many educational activities became impossible to do. As a story in the Chicago Tribune shows, the pandemic also magnified disparities, but this has not stopped everyone from striving for the best outcomes for the children.
As the Chicago Tribune shows, teaching through remote learning requires that students have someone to help them solve their problems, making it difficult for teachers to educate their pupils.
It is true that the pandemic disrupted STEM programs across the country, regardless of demographics, but, it is also true that the disruptions have increased the risk that disparities worsen, harming underserved communities. Many STEM teachers feared this and decided that they needed to take action. The teachers interviewed by the Chicago Tribune started home deliveries of STEM learning resources, created WiFi hotspots so they could offer students dual credit courses and internships, among other activities designed to blunt the effect of the global health crisis. Many STEM programs were already facing problems before the pandemic struck and needed even more assistance during the pandemic.
According to the newspaper, Eaglewood Stem High School, opened in September 2019, with 400 students, a stunning $85 million campus, wonderful science facilities and even a medical centre,k and an ambition to spread the gospel of STEM education. Yet, the school struggled to get going. First there was a teacher’s strike, then, after the winter break, the pandemic struck. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the school’s principal, Conrad Timbers-Ausar, told the Chicago Tribune that the pandemic also created opportunities and made the staff and the students of the school, stronger. Indeed, one example of this is that when in February Chicago Public Schools reopened their schools for in-person instruction, the students who decided to continue with remote learning were enthusiastic and tenacious, rather defeated and apathetic. Timbers-Ausar gave the example of a parent who told him that their child had gone to visit his grandmother, but still made sure to log in and attend classes.
As summer school looms, Eaglewood is preparing to unveil an expanded makerspace this fall. Timbers-Ausar noted that grade nine and 11 students will need the school to provide them with added support as they transition to in-person learning. As a testament to the resilience of the children, 37 students who enrolled in dual credit courses at universities in Chicago, earned a B grade or higher. This is a great story because students of color have been systemically underrepresented in STEM programs and STEM careers.
The Chicago Tribune also looked at the experience of Epic Academy. The charter high school is situated in Chicago’s Southeast Side. Its executive director, LeeAndra Khan, said that she realised the difficulties faced by students of color when she received her diploma and found that she was one of only a few Black women who were enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s engineering program.
She jokes that before graduation day her parents asked her to tell them where she would be sitting because they thought they wouldn’t be able to see her. Sadly, as one of the few Black women in the engineering program, her visibility was never in question. Khan spent a decade as a civil engineer before embarking on a career as an educator. Her love of STEM subjects came from her time as a student at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, a school named after civil rights activist Whitney M. Young. She also had family role models, such as an uncle who was a nuclear engineer, and a grandfather who served as a professor of engineering. The role models made it normal for her to imagine that a Black person could have a successful STEM career. For her, going to college was a given. There was never any question of that. For many students of color, this is not the case. Historical disparities are perpetuated because children lack role models and so grow up in environments where being a Black person in STEM is not normal, where going to college is not normal. Realizing this made Kahn want to find ways to give Black and brown children opportunities to learn more about STEM subjects and imagine themselves working in STEM careers.
One beneficiary of Epic Academy’s work is Sabine Ramirez, a recent graduate headed for Purdue University, where she will become the first member of her family to attend college. She has been such an excellent student that she earned a full scholarship to Purdue. She grew up in a big family, with seven siblings in Chicago’s Far South Side, and when she began her first STEM class, with a nonprofit organization, she was one of only a few girls who had enrolled. Out of 15 students, five were girls. There was a lot of respect between the students, however, she felt welcomed and part of a rich community, rather than isolated. Ramirez was devastated when the pandemic affected so many STEM programs because STEM subjects are difficult to learn online. So many activities are hand-on and done in groups with other children. She realized how hard it would be. Not only are STEM subjects hard to learn online, she was constantly worrying about her internet connection. Research shows that access to the internet is greatly affected by racial disparities. Many students felt demoralized but she recalls a student who would always participate and always tell everyone that they would pass. It was also difficult to navigate through the college application process and the wait for a response was very stressful. You can imagine the joy she felt when she got into Purdue!
The Chicago Tribune’s piece is a reminder of just how important it is to give children access to the best STEAM and STEM programs. STEM education is precious and we need to nurture our children’s thirst for education.