My [MESA] teacher is really helpful. He is like, I understand you’re in the pandemic, you know, you can turn in stuff late because I know stuff happens in life…he is really helpful in COVID…
- Kenny, male student, 16
I tried to do office hours, classroom-like hours, and I met with them [students] and I’m like “How are you going to do today? Show me how you’re going to do this?”…So, I had to adjust, I had to adapt very much.
- Ms. Linda, MESA teacher
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, schools moved online and most students, teachers, and researchers had to relearn how to learn, teach, or research in a new environment. Scholars, bloggers, journalists, educators, and parents have reflected on the numerous challenges associated with transitioning online and how it has exacerbated inequalities. In our ethnographic research, we observed these challenges as well. We would like to contribute to the conversation, however, not by highlighting these well-documented difficulties, but by sharing some of the positive adaptations that teachers and students made in their transition to online learning. Our intent is not to minimize the difficulties faced by teachers and students. Rather, our goal is to share what worked against all odds, in order to carry positive as well as critical learnings forward as we reflect on the impacts of the pandemic.
We were mid-way through an ethnographic study of informal STEM learning programs when the pandemic forced schools and afterschool programs to shut down in person programs. Our research sites included programs that were part of the national Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) program of STEM project-based curriculum. MESA programs focus on engaging youth from groups underrepresented in STEM. Most of our interviewees identified as Latinx. Out of over 50 students we had interviewed pre-pandemic, we only heard back from about half of them to conduct a follow-up interview, virtually this time. We updated our protocol to ask about their new lived experiences since these impacted their MESA and overall schooling experiences. We also met with our four MESA teachers (Ms. Linda, Mr. Tam, Mr. Randy, Mr. Shane) online and observed a few of their online classes in Fall 2020.
During our interviews, our participants shared their recent challenging experiences, which echoed the ones already well-documented in media and literature. For example, the sudden change in family settings due to the high unemployment rates, decrease of classroom engagement due to video cameras and mics being off or bad connectivity, or the absence of immediate in-person support, highly impacted students’ and teachers’ motivation and schooling experiences. Institutional barriers to online education due to the lack of resources of school administrations and districts, as well as the digital divide, further limited our participants’ MESA experiences online. Here, rather than focusing on these well-known challenges, we share three connected learning success stories that we observed in our research, to showcase the innovation and creativity of educators and learners during the pandemic:
- Connecting to Personal Interests
- Responding to Realities of Home & Everyday Life
- Care and Community Building in the Online Classroom
Connecting to Personal Interests
I really like what we are doing right now in MESA. We’re doing this 3D moderator on this website called Tinkercad. It’s like 3D modeling, but online. I did Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob.
- Jared, male student, 13
During the shift to virtual learning, some students were able to connect their online learning across multiple settings, such as to their personal interests, skills that they first developed at home, or everyday knowledge.
For students like Gary, who are passionate about digital media and animation, MESA moving fully online was a blessing. Gary wants to become a computer engineer or video game designer. During MESA online, he was able to expand on his personal interests and learn new skills that he can use in the future. For instance, Gary learned more about coding — a skill he first started teaching himself at home — by engaging in online MESA projects where he used Scratch — a programming language — to create animated characters. Additionally, he was also able to explore his creativity and develop his skills by creating 3D models online.
When Jade grows up, she wants to become an engineer. She recognized the value of attending MESA online despite its challenges. In her second interview, Jade expressed that attending MESA online was important because “in the class [her MESA teacher] is there teaching you how to do this, how to do that, and you could use that in the future. Like, if you wanted to be someone that is an engineer or something that involves the arts of MESA that would be a part of it.”
Students’ personal interests — like those of Gary and Jade — were kept alive during online learning because of teachers who utilized pedagogical methods that were successful in spite of the new challenges or restrictions imposed on them. Indeed, teachers found innovative ways to engage students in their online MESA classes. For instance, Mr. Shane “took it to the next step” by going to school, looking at all the materials they had, and building kits to distribute to his MESA students. Students were then able to go to school and pick up their MESA kits. Mr. Shane reported that he did this so that students would also be able to do hands-on projects at home rather than just online projects. Furthermore, Mr. Shane expressed: “I didn’t want to kill the whole point of the class of building projects with your hands and critical thinking and solving issues and stuff like that. Because I had no idea how long we were going to be out.” Meanwhile, Mr. Tam would incorporate short animation videos of Toy Story into the online MESA classroom to connect it with the students’ 3D character projects and to show students the process of animation. Our MESA educators remained positive and creative despite facing difficulties during the transition from in-person learning to remote learning.
Responding to Realities of Home & Everyday Life
A hands-on class needs to do something hands-on, and if we can’t work in groups, at least we can do something at home where it keeps students’ interest and they can experience that a huge part of engineering is making, it’s building, it is seeing it.
- Mr. Randy, MESA teacher
Some of us would try to create our blueprints of projects with straws that we had at home or something, so that we could have an actual life-size project.
- Lianna, female student, 17
He [Mr. Tam] would try to keep it simple. We would just take tons of stuff from home and we would build something and send him a picture of it.
- Antonio, male student, 16
Ms. Linda has always incorporated new elements into the MESA curriculum that would speak to her and her students. So when they could no longer have access to the materials necessary to build their regular MESA projects, she focused on activities she called “kitchen science”, for students to create projects they could easily do at home. For example, she explained the chemistry and history of tortillas and water filters. She also invited students to create face-mask prototypes. This really spoke to students since they learned science that pertains to their everyday lives and the context of the pandemic. She noticed that many families had cardboard boxes at home due to mail ordering, and designed projects using cardboard boxes. This was another example of her being responsive to and connecting with what was happening in the everyday lives and homes of her students. When doing MESA in-person was no longer an option, Ms. Linda shifted strategy, and connected what she was teaching to everyday science that was accessible to her students.
Amongst youth participants, some students reported that their MESA online class helped them develop essential everyday life skills. Student Haley shared that MESA online has helped her develop problem solving skills. Haley explained that doing MESA at home made her “have to think, you get to work your brain more because you are not at school, they don’t give you the supplies any more, you have to figure out the supplies at your house and you have to use your brain more, like figure out what you could use and what could help you build the project.” Indeed, students were able to apply their online learning by connecting it to real-life skills and contexts. Another example of this is Cristian, who expressed that he learned “about rules and not just MESA rules but like rules about real life rules, kind of like laws and everything and why there are specific rules for things.” MESA teachers were keeping hands-on learning alive online and helped students to continue developing practical skills that could positively impact their futures.
Care and Community Building in the Online Classroom
I honestly felt thankful that [my MESA teacher] cared to help us, even though we couldn’t see each other… I would not have thought she would have actually helped us during this whole thing but she actually showed support while still trying to do work, even though we’re at home.
- Marvin, male student, 15
We talk more, we get into more depth of our lives. We know each other a lot. We trust each other a lot more.
- Kevin, male student, 14
Several MESA classes were able to build a sense of community online. Despite the fact that teachers could not meet (or sometimes even see students through cameras), they tried to forge deeper connections with their students by offering caring support beyond the academic curriculum.
Seeing his students overwhelmed during their transition online, Mr. Tam did his best to relieve student stress by finding ways to create a positive learning experience for everyone. For instance, Mr. Tam reduced the workload on his students and instead spent time throughout the year talking about COVID-19 and providing them with reassurance. He would also play music during class sessions where students were directed to work on their projects. Mr. Tam would even engage in conversations about popular culture or music and play video games with students after they had finished their work for that class period. By incorporating these de-stressing and fun practices into his virtual classroom, Mr. Tam built a sense of community for his students.
Lianna described how, a week after graduation, Mr. Randy surprised the graduating seniors with a link to all the pictures taken during their year in MESA, “he had photos of him and us playing, and him trying to help us […] It was nice.” A majority of students reported feeling supported by their MESA teachers. Most students reported that their MESA teachers showed their support during the unprecedented time of the pandemic by making themselves very available through online office hours, email, and chat. Cianni, for instance, expressed that Mr. Randy went beyond providing STEM support: “Even if it wasn’t related to his class, I sometimes had trouble at home and I asked him what I could do to manage my school life and my home life, and he just gave me good advice. I really appreciated that because I needed an adult perspective and sometimes, I could not talk to my parents about that.” Similarly, other students felt gratitude towards their teachers for providing them with various forms of support that went beyond settings and topics related to school.
Even though students could not meet with their friends or classmates in person anymore, many developed strong new relationships with peers online. Students have been texting, gaming, or using social media and apps like Discord to stay connected. Most of our student participants have maintained their peer connections during the pandemic by communicating online, and some have even formed new relationships. Jordan, for example, has “gained like two or three new friends,” because of Discord. Sebastian considers himself an introvert who had not talked to many people before: “before this virus started, I was like all on my own.” However, “When you’re inside for lockdown for like quarantine and stuff like that, you kind of like undo your introvert […] I’ve been having conversations with my friends on Discord.” Some students shared that their friendships have gotten stronger since the pandemic. That is the case for Austin. His friendships have become stronger with some people: “with friends, we feel a little bit more connected because we are talking all the time, we’re texting all the time.” Similarly, Holly said that she has been texting one of her friends “every single day. And I feel like we got closer over text rather than in person because in person we don’t really talk because she is so busy with her band work and I am just like a person who likes to walk around like the city after school. […] So now we are just on Face Call all the time.”
Additionally, students like Jordan expressed that there is “no real way to communicate with your classmates because the teachers are always saying like, not to have personal conversations in the chat.” However, some students have overcome these limitations associated with the online platforms their schools use that forbid them from chatting with each other, by using social media platforms – especially Discord – on the side to get direct support from peers.
Concluding Reflections on What We Learned as Researchers
There are evident differences between conducting research in-person versus online, and transitioning to an online arena was difficult for us at first. We were used to engaging with coworkers, youth participants, and educators at MESA in-person. It was what we enjoyed the most. When everything went online, we felt a bit disoriented. However, after some time, we were able to create new, unique, and strong relationships online that really helped us navigate researching during the pandemic. For instance, collectively as a team, we decided to give students and teachers “room to breathe” by giving them extra time to conduct interviews. It didn’t feel right for us to keep pushing for our research timeline when everyone was still adjusting to a new lifestyle and online education. We feel that postponing our agenda and being understanding of our participants’ situations ultimately helped us better connect with them and thus gather more meaningful findings.
As researchers, we were inspired by the creative and positive adaptations we observed with teachers and students, which pushed us to think positively and expansively about our research practices as well. For instance, we decided to organize meetings more often to discuss our research and career development goals. We implemented self-reflective and free-writing exercises as part of our work. The reflective activities aimed to focus on our personhood and experience, instead of dissociating who we are from what we do.
In the end, we felt that recentering ourselves, listening to our participants’ stories and recent experiences, and therefore adapting research to where we are at, were particularly important especially during the early stages of the quarantine. We remembered that we, the researchers, and the participants were humans going through a difficult time. Ultimately, we tried to humanize the process of conducting research.
Guest post by Maïko Le Lay (@lay_maiko) & Stephanie Morales