Don’t Stop Me Now: Even the Covid Pandemic Couldn’t Halt Stem K-12 Outreach

Supporting the educational pipeline, SWE, teachers, students, and STEM groups put their problem-solving skills to work, doing everything from distributing science kits to hosting virtual field trips to assigning lessons on the great outdoors.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

The COVID-19 STEM-learning response relied on local, individual, and heroic efforts among teachers, parents, nonprofits, membership societies, and others to keep learning forging ahead virtually. Crucial to the STEM pipeline, these dedicated individuals and groups have come through with aplomb and a can-do spirit.

SWE initiatives

SWE’s High School Leadership Academy (SHLA) and SWENext clubs moved to online activities that continued to engage — and even increase — participation. SWE headquarters staff and SWE committee volunteers throughout the world created virtual meeting guides for the Society’s 271 SWENext clubs for girls in middle and high school, chock-full of ideas on ways to keep the young members engaged on Zoom. SWENext counts 5,144 members overall, including some not connected to a club — mostly high-schoolers — throughout the world.

“We focused on fun and engaging, interactive activities, like having the girls do a hands-on activity or a project with their parents, versus only having them sit and listen to someone talk ‘at’ them about a given topic or engineering discipline,” said Markita Riley, SWE’s student programs coordinator.

The activity kits listed materials that anyone would have around the house, enabling SWENext participants to get creative and solve problems without buying new materials. “The goal was to make everyone feel special and included,” Riley said. “Setting this goal allowed SWENexters to know that it doesn’t take a lot to build your STEM identity … just a little motivation and engagement, which I think this year has taught all of us to appreciate what’s in front of us.”

Markita Riley
student programs coordinator
Society of Women Engineers

Photo credit:
Forty Photography

The COVID-19 shutdown actually expanded outreach because Riley was able to match SWE professionals with about 60 SWENext clubs that had been waiting to find a SWE member to serve as their club counselor. “We’re no longer limited by geography,” Riley said of her ability to match SWE professionals with SWENext clubs remotely.

The SWENext High School Leadership Academy (SHLA) got a boost, too. The virtual and recorded webinars and presentations during this year’s two-part virtual annual conference received a total of 771 online content views. A total of 233 attended live. That compared with 135 participants at last year’s in-person SHLA conference.

“To show how dedicated these students were, we had students from across the world logging in at 1 o’clock in the morning to catch a live session, but we also took this into account by offering on-demand recordings of all live events,” Riley said. The programming also included program tracks with sessions on topics such as leadership, college preparation, STEM pathways, inclusion and cultural awareness, and self-development, including networking with peers and professionals.

SWE now plans to offer the virtual programming year-round for SWENext members, and in July 2020, started making the SHLA video playlist available on SWENext’s YouTube channels — one curated for high-school girls and the other for middle-school girls.

SWENext Connect is where students and SWE professionals volunteer to be online (via Zoom) mentors to SWENext participants in grades K-12. The program includes:

  • Networking with peers, in which a student leader and facilitator leads an activity or starts conversations among peers
  • 30-minute Q&A mentoring sessions for groups of five or fewer in which girls may ask their mentors anything they’d like

“I’m so impressed with our (SWE) volunteers’ work,” Riley said. “And the students have blown me away with their commitment to be involved. They’ve shown an incredible amount of resilience and willingness to still be a part of our SWENext community. We’re going to get through this together.”

A groundswell of support

SWE global ambassador Stella Uzochukwu-Denis, an electrical engineer in her native Nigeria, said her organization — Odyssey Educational Foundation — sent money for recharge cards to her SWENext club so that club members could subscribe to the internet from their wireless phones.

The foundation also organized free online classes from May 1 to June 1, 2020, to teach the girls how to make business cards by using apps on their phones. The girls earned their own money by making business cards for clients. The girls then spent that money to purchase data so they could stay online, and some joined Odyssey’s online coding class. And since COVID cases stabilized in August 2020 in Nigeria — the sub-Saharan African continent’s most populous nation — the SWENext club started an in-person class with COVID rules in place.

Additional examples of individuals and organizations “stepping up”:

    • STEAM in a box: In the Boulder, Colorado area, Museum in a Box provides museum STEAM activities, complete with learning materials, to families with early-learners (preschool through third grade) and to senior citizens with early-stage memory loss. Learners may “virtually” explore the Museum of Natural History in Boulder to see exhibits on birds, snakes, horses, and more; take an interactive 3D tour of the paleontology hall; and download guides to explore the natural world.
    • The American Society of Civil Engineers designed a virtual engineering experience, “Dream, Build, Create,” by partnering with public libraries across the U.S. to introduce engineering to children and families. The program included free screenings of the documentary “Dream Big: Engineering Our World.”
    • In Oakland, California, high-school basketball player Ahmed Muhammad, a straight-A student talented in math and science, used his stay-at-home time to launch the nonprofit Kits Cubed to get science kits out to children in underserved communities. The science kits include experiments geared to grade-school students, such as growing a plant, making a rocket and a kaleidoscope, and learning Newtonian physics principles by building a catapult. Of the latter, the kit advises: “Have fun launching (small) objects [with the catapult].”

“I don’t think young kids’ exposure to science is equally accessible,” Muhammad told KTVU, the local TV station. “Learning science is currently a privilege, when it should be a fundamental piece of every child’s education.”

  • PEER (Physics through Evidence, Empowerment through Reasoning) Physics: School of Education faculty and staff from this project at the University of Colorado Boulder and from the Engineering Plus program partnered virtually with teachers, coaches, and administrators from the Northeast, East Central, and Centennial boards of cooperative educational services to provide professional development and physics curricula. Concepts include force, waves, energy, magnetism, and gravitation.
  • TeachEngineering offers a searchable, web-based digital library collection of standards-based engineering curricula for K-12 educators to make applied science and math come alive through engineering design.
  • The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) launched a virtual “Tracks to Trades” program for high-school students. The program focused on the biggest transit investment in the 129-year history of Chicago’s elevated and underground train system: updating the Red Line, CTA’s busiest rail line, by rebuilding four 100-year-old stations; building a Red-Purple bypass bridge north of Belmont station to improve service and reduce delays; and rebuilding a 50-year-old track signal system. The program featured weekly webinars with 10 students. The webinars covered trade apprenticeships, safety in construction, and resume/interviewing skills. The CTA partnered with Job Corps, which helped the students access apprenticeships.
  • Tosha Nembhard, Ph.D., FHEA, assistant professor in aerospace engineering at Coventry University, U.K., who designed and developed heat transfer components for military and commercial aircraft, moved her outreach efforts online. She posted online questions and answers about her career and described her journey with the Women in Engineering Society and the STEM awareness WISE Campaign.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Nembhard gave in-person talks to schools and colleges, mentored students, and served as a STEM ambassador. Throughout, she has been the driving force behind the university’s partnership with the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic engineers.

  • The GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), an international science and education program, provides the opportunity for students and teachers to collect data and participate in the scientific process remotely. It also offers grade-specific links to protocols and activities for online learning, and online educational resources to other STEM programs, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.