How the Pandemic May Help More Students See Themselves as Scientists

girl in microscope

“Oh, it didn’t explode,” Megan shrieked as her undergraduate teacher supervised pouring the liquid into a beaker at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

“It didn’t explode.” It is not a statement of truth and more an expression of relief. But during 2020, it looked as if everything was exploding with no relief in sight. Not only the COVID-19 virus, but also hateful political rhetoric. Police brutality, racial injustice and widening inequality. Record levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Just as the eight-person research team was about to launch our years-long classroom intervention to advance scientific findings, the pandemic changed everything.

Megan was one of seven high school students we worked with on a multi-year project called My STEM Story, an interdisciplinary collaboration led by media, education and psychology scholars at the University of Oregon, the University of Kentucky, and a nonprofit educational research organization called Inflexion. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project uses documentary-style storytelling videos to capture unwritten interactions and real stories from high school students and undergraduate mentors to motivate students of color and other underrepresented youth to pursue scientific careers. We planned to examine how the highlights from these stories about overcoming obstacles might affect how high school students view their potential as scientists. However, unexpected roadblocks tested our resolve – giving us our own experience of struggling through science. This prompted us to increase empathy with the students we aim to inspire and to think more creatively about our research approach.

To create the videos, we filmed pairs of mentors and apprentices of students who identify as Black, Hispanic/South Asian, and Persian as they shared lunches and labs while studying materials science, chemistry, microbiology, and neuronal functions of the brain. Couples discussed their personal and professional interests, from favorite foods to physics. The mentors shared stories about the obstacles and opportunities they faced in their university education. The coaches sought advice and feedback from mentors close to their peers who had been in their place not too long ago. The mentors provided personal and honest guidance to the interns, who asked questions as they explored what science could mean to them and their future.

Courtesy of Ed Madison.

These scenarios placed our subjects in confined spaces with shared equipment. Fortunately, most mentoring took place prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in the summer of 2019. The next phase of our research called for showing videos of these mentoring experiences to students at local high schools and engaging them in self-reflection exercises to boost their scientific motivation and achievement. In fact, we completed in-person training with enthusiastic and enthusiastic partner teachers a few days before COVID-19 stopped our data collection, changed the implementation of our intervention, and challenged us to rethink how we move forward.

When our universities halted in-person searches in March 2020, we assumed the shutdown would be temporary. Initially, we focused on changing schedules and making minor adjustments to the in-classroom practice exams. However, as weeks turned into months of campus and local shutdowns, it’s becoming clear that we won’t be back to normal anytime soon. Our team has felt the pressure of the intrinsic drive to productivity instilled by academia through the ever-increasing reliance on profit maximization and austerity measures. Competitive national grants require returns on investment through scalable publications and intervention materials. Graduate professors and educators spend more energy on emotional work with struggling undergraduates who are also expected to carry on with “business as usual.” Although these pressures have always simmered beneath the surface in higher education, the pandemic has brought them into the spotlight.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been the pressure to achieve corporate goals and expectations from “before time” despite the need for an ethic of caring for ourselves and each other as human beings in “beyond time”. This became even more apparent as our team dealt with personal challenges, such as undergoing medical procedures, dealing with mental health issues, losing loved ones, balancing childcare, managing isolation, and battling constant screen fatigue. Despite our attempt to remain cooperative and supportive, we felt an internal animosity between moving forward and backtracking in our research plans as team members differed on how to proceed, at what pace, and in what ways. Pre-service professors are concerned about productivity. Graduate students are concerned about achieving program milestones. Researchers are concerned they are running out of money. Permanent professors were pushed into leadership roles that had to make impossible decisions.

Amidst this tension, we witnessed and participated in the global grassroots movement for racial equality and justice that swelled through the year 2020. As scholars and educators dedicated to developing STEM identity and equity approaches in racially diverse and historically marginalized youth, we have thought that these twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism collide . We’ve seen that the populations we seek to support through our research are the same populations most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and underrepresented in STEM fields working to stop the virus. I felt our search was more urgent.

Our digital storytelling videos have shown that college mentors devise ways to overcome the challenges their high school apprentices face. But these mentors also took lessons that they taught us during this time. They told their interns about the personal and academic challenges they faced: an unsupportive teacher, a parent’s mental illness, a disturbing health diagnosis. They also shared the strategies they used to get around it, such as establishing a routine and identifying supportive family members and friends. They reveal their experiences with self-doubt and uncertainty and explain how finding both internal and external motivation made them move toward their goals. Surrounded by the rich stories of barriers and resilience from semi-peer mentoring pairs, we’ve gone from being experts to being learners. We adapted and tried to respond to each other with support and kindness. Faced with a system that demands productivity at all costs, we have created a space to purposefully and purposefully focus on our humanity, and in slowing down we have found opportunity to be born again.

By reflecting on the challenges we’ve faced in our lives, we began to wonder how living within the confines of COVID-19 restrictions would affect students we had planned to study just a few months ago. We asked ourselves: Can the world’s experience during COVID-19 lead students to engage with science in new and immersive ways? Could watching a mentor’s video of how their drive to give back to society influence their choice of career in science could have a huge impact on 10th-grade audiences?

We outlined our hypothesis in a formal request for additional funding, and the National Science Foundation awarded our team a rapid response research grant to explore matters related to COVID-19. We created a new digital video to tell stories about science in the pandemic, where we also expanded the underrepresented population to include a gay-identifying marine biologist and Megan, a high school student with a Native American heritage. Under pandemic guidelines, we filmed the steering experience of this new pair along the Oregon coast. This has allowed us to challenge the prevailing narratives about who can be a scientist and advance conversations about the role of science in the public good.

On the day of filming, we experienced classic Oregon winter weather – cloudy, cold and drizzly. But Megan’s words – “It didn’t explode!” It was bigger than a chemical reaction inside a glass beaker. It was a statement of optimism. Despite the challenges we faced in 2020 and still face them well into 2021, we have found opportunities to reimagine academic life in the shadow of the pandemic and move forward with purposeful work.

While COVID-19 has frustrated our plans to assess student responses to our videos in the classroom, it has also created new opportunities. We decided to modify our intervention and relay it online. And it looks like we’ll be able to implement it flexibly, requiring a little energy from already exhausted teachers. This self-directed online delivery may make the student experience more accessible and potentially more accessible to more students, with longer life as well.

We believe these changes will have a positive impact on more students, and hopefully lead to greater equality and inclusion that will advance science as individuals from different backgrounds collaborate and solve problems for the greater good.

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