Connected Science Learning November–December 2022 (Volume 4, Issue 6)
By Marti Lindsey, Ben Richmond, Alex Benavides, Graciela "Zonnie" Olivas, Kelle Hyland, Leesa Lyons, Lexy Havunen, Mayra Vargas, Brook Moreno, and Bob Mittan
For the summers of 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 produced a “wicked problem” (Braund 2021) for sustaining established STEM programming. The challenges included the transfer of hands-on educational activities to virtual, poor internet infrastructure in rural and less-advantaged communities, and lack of experience conducting virtual STEM programs. Many programs, including those described here, made adaptations to continue their programs (Allen 2020).
This article discusses six summer STEM programs in Arizona that developed ways to meet the challenges. The authors, from the Community Engagement Core of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, have been conducting summer STEM programs for 15 years. These programs provide pathways for students from middle school to community college to explore STEM topics and careers. We have found the environmental health lens to be effective for exploring many STEM fields, degrees, and careers. It is a broad and interdisciplinary area of study that is important to the students and communities we serve, which are primarily American Indian (Lindsey et al. 2021), Latinx, and less advantaged socioeconomically. During the pandemic, the topic of environmental health became especially important as it taught students about epidemiology, interpreting data, understanding the research process, identifying bias, and the importance of science literacy because of its relevance to the direct experience of students and their communities.
The original programs and their virtual adaptations were developed in consultation with educational partners including teachers, administrators, and workforce development professionals. In planning the 2020 virtual summer programs, collaborating teachers and community partners noted that participants were poorly motivated by remote learning during their spring 2020 classes, which led to the essential adaptations described in this article.
Further, lessons learned in the summer of 2020 informed the summer 2021 programming, some of which continued to be virtual. Findings from program experience and evaluation, educational research, and education literature concerning Latinx, and Native American students have led the authors to several critical insights for optimal learning. These include the participants
The programs have varying structures but share the following common processes based on educational theories and experiences: (1) science literacy development, (2) college readiness experiences, (3) lab safety and research methods training, (3) active involvement in conducting science, (4) relationships with multiple mentors to guide participants, and (5) engagement in a reflective process that encourages learning. Figure 1 shows how proud students are at the end of the programs when they demonstrate the competencies developed during the programs.
Community partners and teachers were involved in the curriculum development and logistic planning of these programs in various ways. Specific community partners and collaborating teacher types are identified in Table 1.
For example, high school biotechnology teachers informed the curriculum and taught specific lessons for the initial weeks of Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) (Ingram et al. 2019) and Steps 2 STEM. They designed and helped teach lab techniques, biotechnology concepts, and how to read research papers. Community partners were also heavily involved in both the curriculum covered and logistical planning for the Toxic Detectives and Our Land, Education and Health (OLEH) programs. Their collaboration was essential to ensure the curriculum was culturally relevant and responsive for student participants and that the timing of the programs did not create unneeded barriers for student participation. The curriculum for A Student’s Journey (ASJ) was largely designed in partnership between University of Arizona and Tohono O’odham Community College staff members, with the program design heavily informed by community members, former students, and community college teachers. Together, all six programs serve at least 130 students each summer.
All six programs aim to accomplish three primary goals: (1) to advance student science knowledge, critical thinking, and skills; (2) to empower students to develop authentic self-confidence; and (3) to introduce students to the university environment and the skills needed to matriculate.
University introduction topics are addressed because over half of the students are from underserved communities and schools, and these students are likely to be the first in their families to attend college. They benefit from guidance about academic culture. The programs provide age-appropriate and culturally relevant science experiences.
From program evaluations over the years, we have learned that participants see themselves “doing science” and “being a scientist” in very real ways (see Figure 2). They show their comprehension and expertise through hands-on mind-on activities (Young 2002) and through regular reflective learning and reading, writing, and speaking about science. Participants critically reflect on the real-world science activities and the people they met to consider how they personally were changing and growing because of program activities. The intention of the programs is to create a pipeline for students to follow as they explore a future in STEM.
Reflective learning is founded on the work of John Dewey (1980). The prompts incorporate student responses to the experiences. Reviews of hundreds of participants’ reflections have consistently found them describing their work in highly detailed “science speak” as casually as they narrate the fun they had at a social gathering. Many also comment, “I really am a researcher!”
The science foundation for all programs is environmental health, which combines environmental science, biology, chemistry, and risk communication (Table 2).
Lab safety trainings (Bloodborne Pathogens and Universal Precautions (OSHA Compliant), General Lab Chemical Safety, Fire Safety Awareness, Basic Biosafety) are conducted through the university online portal. Guest speakers, professionals, faculty, and graduate students from Native American and Latinx communities are included as exemplars and role models to develop the students’ sense of belonging on a university campus (Weiss 2021). Thus, the students view themselves as scientists from these experiences (see Figure 3).
Many mentors surround each participant with a “constellation” of mentoring relationships (Mittan 2018). World-class scientists, post-doctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, near-peer student paraprofessionals and program peers provide support. Vygotsky (Taber 2020) describes the learning situation for students with a “more capable peer” can achieve more than when working in isolation. Students can do more at a higher level than they thought possible because they are given opportunities to do difficult things with a guide on their side.
The science content of each program is appropriate to the preparation level of its participants and designed to meet their needs (see Table 3).
Three of the programs are aimed at less-experienced students and thus involve informal science activities, faculty and graduate student interviews, and lab visits (see Figure 4). The other three programs, for more advanced students, focus on research internships—hands-on lab work on real science in process.
For all programs, guest experts present workshops about environmental health topics, cultural connections, academic skills, STEM careers, and academic pathways. When appropriate and if scheduling permits, students from more than one program participate in the same workshop, working with students of different ages and seeing the progression of the six programs. All programs include time for participants to practice their final oral presentations in private (Lindsey 2000), receiving peer and mentor feedback before their public performance.
Programs across the nation faced similar challenges of accessibility, online fatigue, and keeping lessons fun and different from online school. Using the adaptations described below encouraged authentic learning and enjoyment of the summer programs in 2020. While some programs focused on pandemic-related science (Sadler 2020), the programs described here focused on environmental health and social justice.
While creating virtual adaptations for programming in 2020, some features typical of face-to-face programming were retained to engage students and improve their learning. These include internships; independent scientific discovery; environmental health science education; a seminar approach; developing academic and professional skills; mentoring, especially from university faculty and staff of similar cultural backgrounds; prompts for reflective learning (Thorpe 2004); and final projects. Student final projects are developed through a series of weekly mini assignments. Thus, student success is enhanced using a Zone of Proximal Development or scaffold approach (Billings 2018).
The program adaptations during 2020 occurred in four distinct categories, described for each program in Table 4. The categories include (1) encouraging peer-to-peer interactions, (2) reducing social barriers, (3) providing virtual mentorship, and (4) using time and energy effectively. A blended approach to STEM learning, including reading and writing literacy and academic skills, proved effective by assisting students from non-dominant cultures in understanding the importance of STEM within environmental and social circumstances.
One key effect of transforming in-person programming to virtual formats was program staff needing to make adaptations. They developed the changes by doing daily evaluations of the programs and collaborating with each other to address the challenges created by the pandemic. One example of adaptation was staggering the program schedules to accommodate collaboration among the programs. Because staff members were constantly learning what worked, many adaptations developed spontaneously. The following sections include adaptation details and impacts collected via insights and feedback from students, program staff, and collaborating partners.
The virtual programs all incorporated peer-to-peer interaction to facilitate public speaking, self- advocacy, friendships, and networking skills development. These interactions also promote community building and allow participants to do low-stakes practice prior to experiences with researchers, professionals in respective fields, and final presentations. The following strategies produced good results in the online format.
Because many of the students in these programs had difficulties with online programming, staff sought creative ways to reduce the barriers for students’ participation. These adaptations were critical to students’ experiences and program success. Students often were reticent to inform programs about their barriers; therefore, program staff sought out each student individually to discuss how their needs might be met. With many students living in rural areas, two large barriers included inadequate internet connectivity and a lack of computers that could use all Zoom features. Strategies to address barriers included:
Staff designed the programs to maintain the important element of giving students individualized help with assignments, professional writing, and skills development that had been part of the in-person programming. This level of mentorship was vital for students to gain confidence in their ability to perform efficiently in academic and professional settings.
Virtual programming mentorship and interviews became especially important to help facilitate hands-on practice and interactions. The fun social events and informal conversations between activities or while moving across campus all but disappeared in the virtual programs, so adaptations were made (see Virtual Programming image in Appendix A).
Nearly everyone experienced “Zoom fatigue” (see Figure 5) or struggled to stay engaged with virtual presentations and activities. While it was a challenge to get students to interact, it was even harder to help them stay attentive in the virtual format. The following adaptations helped maximize student engagement without making them feel overworked or overwhelmed.
While all these adaptations were helpful, some topics and activities did not lend themselves easily to virtual interaction among participants. To combat this issue, staff rethought activities to make them more interactive. For example, using activity packets (see Figure 6) began after staff wondered, “How are we going to keep students busy and engaged while looking at a computer screen?”
Program staff also found that, no matter how hard they tried, they could not make every piece of programming highly engaging; however, they could mix things up by
The “popcorn” strategy shifted discussions from passive listening to active and engaged listening.
All programs are evaluated formatively in the moment, at benchmarks within the session, and summatively at program end. Staff gather a wide variety of materials, documents, and observations that reveal to what extent and how participants achieve the goals. Written and spoken reflections provide rich documentation (see Appendix A). Prompts for written reflections elicit specific examples of participants’ experiences and explanation of how those experiences increased their knowledge, self-efficacy, and abilities.
Spoken reflections include short debriefs following presentations and immediate group discussions following activities. Final presentations reveal participants’ level of self-confidence, as well as their knowledge, as they discuss how program experiences have impacted them, their sense of accomplishment, and their desire to pursue higher education. Electronic satisfaction and impact surveys at the end of each program ask participants to rate activities and experiences and suggest improvements for every aspect of the program. Viewing the successful presentations (see Figure 7) also demonstrated the impact of the programs on students of all ages and backgrounds.
During post-program debrief sessions, staff used SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) to collaboratively identify student overall achievement and plan future development of the programs. Table 5 presents these outcomes.
Strengths identified the focus on “what really matters” to program participants. Weaknesses focused on the difficulty of doing purely fun, social activities online. The Opportunities identified that the adaptations could be used during in-person programming, particularly using virtual tools to introduce and communicate with experts and mentors who cannot be physically present. Threats were primarily those that everyone experienced during the pandemic: Zoom fatigue and limited social interaction.
The most common feedback participants offered during Summer 2020 programs involved gratitude that the program was held, even if it had to be done online. Exit surveys in 2020 show that the vast majority of participants (above 90%) agreed that the program increased their science knowledge and their ability to do science. Interestingly, a high majority (nearing 100%) agreed that their 2020 program experience improved their ability to learn using online environments, an unexpected and welcome outcome. Perhaps most surprising, the majority of participants (73%) whose hands-on, in-person lab internship was shifted completely to an online experience agreed that, if the opportunity became available, they would do another “virtual” STEM program.
The 2020 program participants valued who they met as much or more than what activities they did. Online discussions with world-class researchers, public health experts, and undergraduate and graduate students working in research labs consistently earned strongly positive feedback. One student indicated that the student panel “answered lots of questions and were able to give us tips for when we [are] in college.” Other participants noted that learning about career options, science, and research fields, as well as “the social life behind the research field” gave them an understanding of what those experiences might be like in the future.
Participants from underrepresented groups commented on the impact of learning about environmental justice issues from “one of our own people” and to hear firsthand about their work in science and health fields. Participants often described “inspiring” activities in which mentors shared their personal histories, journeys to their current position, as well as their passion for their work. Table 6 presents sample student comments.
In 2020 every program was forced to find a way to be successful in a virtual format. While it was difficult at first and challenges remained, it did not take long to get accustomed to the new lifestyle. Some students preferred this new routine because it offered convenience and a more self-dictated pace. However, it was also a way to hide behind a camera, an excuse not to participate, and a crutch in social situations.
These negative consequences created unique challenges when some programs—Toxic Detectives, Step2STEM, Environmental Scholars, and A Student’s Journey—returned to an in-person format in 2021. For example, staff noted students were shyer than they had been in previous years, taking a couple of weeks to gain pre-pandemic social confidence. Lunchtime is usually a time for students to interact and tell stories about their experiences, but in one program staff noticed that students sat quietly, often seeking tables to eat alone. Staff’s purposeful efforts to initiate conversation at lunch was helpful. Purposeful use of icebreakers throughout each day was helpful for bringing students together. Competition was another useful adaptation from virtual programming that was useful for the in-person environment. These strategies facilitated social interaction, breaking down the social walls that students had built up while learning online at home.
Hybrid formats, which had students come in person some days and attend virtually on others, was not a productive way to structure days. Sometimes, students would be confused about the schedule and where they needed to be. Upon observation of student performance, staff members reflected that in-person days were often the more productive days and that students treated virtual days as a break.
Occasionally changing the classroom location helped keep students focused: using a different classroom if available, going on a tour with a guest speaker, or doing activities outside if weather permitted. The change of scenery seemed to motivate students, increase their interest, and keep their focus. Overall, when going from a virtual format to an in-person format, it was important to be even more intentional in facilitating social interactions, committing to a full in-person format, and being purposeful about using multiple settings.
Weaknesses that were addressed included limited and difficult social interactions, virtual tours not giving students a real on-campus experience, and mental and physical exhaustion. Results of the adaptations proved successful enough in overcoming the challenges so that there were few dropouts and students were able to complete the expected work.
In 2020 we found that the community partners and students appreciated that the six programs were not cancelled. In 2021 returning to in-person programming provided new insights into best practices for summer STEM programs. In both years, program staff had to think on their feet and make adaptations on the fly. The summative program evaluations each year led to ongoing program improvement, while the all-staff debriefing with the external evaluator led to changes for the future.
Below are recommendations for both going to virtual programming and then going back to an in-person format. They serve as guidance for pathway development over middle school to junior college, providing a pipeline to STEM education and careers.
Students and staff were able to shift to virtual activities and gain new knowledge, develop new science and academic skills, express positive self-confidence, and view themselves as university students and scientists. Table 7 summarizes how the programs benefited from evaluation and reflection to improve going forward, creating a pipeline of programming to interest students—especially non-dominant culture students—in STEM and environmental health.
It was exciting to see the STEM showcases at the end of each program, where students presented about environmental health topics they studied. Done virtually, programs gained an impressive record of student outcomes.
Marti Lindsey is the Retired Community Engagement Director and founder of the KEYS High School Research Internship at University of Arizona Medical Center, College of Pharmacy in Tucson, Arizona. Ben Richmond, MPH, is Associate Director, Community Engagement Core, founder of Steps 2 STEM, Alex Benavides is Program Coordinator, Senior, Coordinator Students Journey, Graciela "Zonnie" Olivas, Tribal Affiliation: Navajo (Diné), is Coordinator of Our Lands, Education and Health, Program Coordinator, Leesa Lyons is Assistant Program Coordinator, Coordinator of Environmental Scholars, Lexy Havunen is Assistant Program Coordinator, Coordinator Toxic Detectives, Mayra Vargas is Program Coordinator, Coordinator of Steps 2 STEM, all at the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, University of Arizona Medical Center, College of Pharmacy in Tucson, Arizona. Kelle Hyland is Program Manager, Outreach and Engagement, Coordinator, KEYS High School Student Research Internship, BIO5 Institute, at the University of Arizona. Brook Moreno is the Title III Project Manager and past Coordinator of the KEYS Program. Bob Mittan is President, RKKM Consulting, LLC, External Evaluator in Tucson, Arizona.
citation: Lindsey, M. , B. Richmond, A. Benavides, G. Olivas, K. Hyland, L. Lyons, L. Havunen, M. Vargas, B. Moreno, and B. Mittan. 2022. There and back: How a global pandemic shaped youth programming. Connected Science Learning 4 (6). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected-science-learning-november-december-2022/there-and-back-how
Allen, A., M. Ball, D. Bild, D. Boone, D. Briggs, D. Davis, ... and T. Stol. 2020. Leveraging Out-of-school STEM programs during COVID-19. Connected Science Learning 2 (4). https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected- science-learning-october-december-2020/leveraging-out-school
Billings, E., and A. Walqui. 2018. The Zone of Proximal Development: An affirmative perspective in teaching ELLs/MLLs. https://www.wested.org/resources/zone-of-proximal-development/#.
Braund, M. 2021. Critical STEM literacy and the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 1–18. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42330-021-00150-w
Dewey, J. 1980. The school and society, 4th ed. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Ingram, H., B. Mittan, and M. Lindsey. 2019. KEYS high school student internship program. Connected Science Learning. https://www.nsta.org/connected-science-learning/connected-science-learning-january-march-2019/keys-high-school-student
Lewin, L. 1997. Making effective use of the internet to enhance your classroom instruction. Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education & Research.
Lindsey, M. 2000. A Constructivist Study of Developing Curriculum to Teach Internet Information Literacy to Navajo High School Students. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~mlindsey/Lindsey/thesis.pdf
Lindsey, M., D. Sestiaga Jr., J. Pryor, B. Richmond, A. Benavides, and A. Stevens. 2021. I-We:mta – Working Together at Tohono O’odham Community College and the University of Arizona. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 33(2), 14-18. https://tribalcollegejournal.org/i-wemta-working-together-at-tohono-oodham-community-college-and-the-university-of-arizona/
Mittan, B., M. Lindsey, H. Ingram. 2018. Multiple mentors for developmental relationships, Conference Proceedings, New Mexico Mentoring Institute. https://www.mentor- cmc.com/cmc/cmc2018/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=1&folio=153#pg153
Taber, K.S. 2020. Mediated learning leading development—The social development theory of Lev Vygotsky. In Science Education in Theory and Practice (pp. 277–291). Springer, Cham. https://science-education- research.com/publications/chapters/mediated-learning-leading-development/
Thorpe, K. 2004. Reflective learning journals: From concept to practice. Reflective practice 5 (3): 327–343. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1462394042000270655
Sadler, T.D., P. Friedrichsen, L. Zangori, and L. Ke. 2020. Teaching and learning about COVID-19 during the pandemic. https://www.nsta.org/blog/teaching-and-learning-about-covid-19-during-pandemic
Weiss, S. 2021. Fostering sense of belonging at universities. European Journal of Education 56 (1): 93–97. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ejed.12439
Wolf, P.R., and J.A. Rickard. 2003. Talking circles: A Native American approach to experiential learning. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 31 (1): 39–43. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2161- 1912.2003.tb00529.x
Young, M.R. 2002. Experiential learning=hands-on+minds-on. Marketing Education Review 12 (1): 43–51. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10528008.2002.11488770
Environmental Science Equity Inclusion Inquiry Teaching Strategies Informal Education