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STEM Education during COVID-19 #3

Student Perspectives

In Part 1 of this series, we examined the difficult path forward for college students returning to STEM education in the fall, and the ways in which their education will be able to continue; in Part 2, we talked to Dr. Ursula Williams at Juniata College about how faculty are preparing to teach STEM in the fall. Now, let’s consider what students think. For Part 3, we spoke with incoming and current college students to hear how they’re feeling about studying STEM during the pandemic.

All four students interviewed expressed concern about the fall semester given their experiences when schools shut down in the spring. Carver is a prospective mechanical engineering major and incoming freshman at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Just finishing up high school, it was definitely a big change, and it was just a lot harder for me in general, because I’m a hands-on learner,” he said. Carver also likes to ask questions to process the course material, so Zoom classes are not ideal. However, last spring, his physics “teacher was really good at getting everyone engaged… and doing all their labs, and just finishing off the year as normal as possible, so I’m just hoping that Stevens will have that same kind of teaching style.”

Sophie, an incoming Columbia freshman with plans to major in biology on a pre-med track, also noticed difficulties with online STEM courses last spring. Referring to her experience in AP Chemistry, Sophie said, “My personal investment in the class dropped slightly as we went on to online learning because I no longer had that face-to-face connection with my teacher and everyone else in the class.” Labs were particularly challenging. “There’s really no comparison between what you can do online, which is press a button and watch a little animation of a beaker move across the screen, to you doing that physically yourself,” she commented. Since lab skills “can’t be translated on-screen,” Sophie concluded that “attempting to do labs online is nearly pointless.”

Katherine, a neuroscience student beginning her second year at Pasadena City College (PCC), seemed to agree. She called virtual lab simulations “annoying” because “a lot of what you learn through a lab isn’t just the concepts, but actually working in the lab, interacting not only with students but with the materials you have.” Katherine was taking introductory chemistry and calculus classes when PCC shut down, “and they were both difficult, not just for the students, but [also] for the teachers, because they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Grier, a rising senior at Stevens and biomedical engineering major, was taking several STEM courses last spring and noticed that some courses worked better than others when they shifted to distance learning. She had a “smooth transition” in a computer-based course, which she characterized as “probably the best learning experience I had from this past semester.” Unfortunately, “it was more challenging for the digital signal processing class to go online because the labs require technology that was only available in the classroom… It was very disjointed and disconnected, and I think that the professor handled it as well as he could. But I think that it definitely was not a great learning experience overall because you were really missing out on that hands-on experience.”

As current college students, Grier and Katherine are thinking about how their experience in STEM will be different next year.

Grier is looking ahead to her senior design project, which she describes as “a two-semester class [in which] you’re put into groups and you basically innovate your own solution to a problem within your major.” When we spoke a few weeks ago, Grier was worried about what changes Stevens may make to the senior design project given the pandemic and the university’s hybrid reopening plan. “I’m hoping that I can still do that, because that’s something that Stevens really emphasizes… and I think it would really be a shame if my class was to miss out on that because of the pandemic, so I’m hoping that they’re making accommodations for that.”

Given everything, Grier feels that the pandemic has “definitely taken away from the experiences I would have been able to have.” She said, “I think we’re definitely missing out on being able to be in labs this summer, and last semester we all missed out on finishing up those classes that were supposed to be super informative and beneficial to take… They also haven’t said anything about tuition refunds or lab refunds, so I think that from an economic standpoint, it would be bad and wrong if they were to charge us for these senior classes when we’re not getting the full experience that we were promised four years ago.”

Students walking through Bechtel Mall, Caltech.
Students walking through Bechtel Mall, Caltech. Image by Matthew Enger.

Meanwhile, Katherine knows that she will not be returning to the classroom in the fall. “It is kind of a relief that everything is online because there’s still a lot of concern about the virus, and I just don’t know if I’d be comfortable being forced to go to classes in person,” Katherine said, but “it’s going to be kind of hard, especially just the STEM classes in general. It wasn’t a very enjoyable experience in my perspective just doing the first semester online. But I figured, well, they’ve had a test run already, so it could end up working out maybe a little bit easier.”

To that end, Katherine hopes that PCC will provide “more opportunities for student feedback” and “more live instruction or live videos” in the fall. “I felt like there was a lot of… teaching yourself, and I’d like to see the teachers do more live instruction or at least live conversations, if they can,” she said.

Katherine noted that, due to the pandemic, “you’re not getting that experience that a lot of transferring schools would really appreciate, and also, I’ve noticed, less experience for jobs or internships as well, which is hard.” She is also concerned about the pandemic’s effect on PCC’s finances. “I’ve noticed, since signing up for my next semester, there’s a lot of budget cuts, especially at PCC, so there are a lot fewer honors classes that are offered, which I saw as a challenge, not just for me but for my other classmates who are in the honors program.”

Even so, Katherine has been able to find silver linings of distance learning, such as learning to be flexible, independent, and determined. “It’s not an ideal situation, but you can rise to the occasion, and I think it shows grit. It shows perseverance in difficult times,” she said. “It was a challenging semester for me, this spring, but I’m really kind of proud of how I was able to keep going and do pretty well in my classes in spite of everything else.”

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