How the Pandemic May Help More Students See Themselves as Scientists

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

How the Pandemic May Help More Students See Themselves as Scientists

By Ed Madison , Matthew Kim and Rachel Guldin     Dec 7, 2021

This article is part of the guide: Voices of Change.

girl at microscope

“Ooo, it didn't explode,” shouted Megan as her undergraduate student mentor supervised her pouring liquid into a beaker at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

“It didn’t explode.” It’s less a statement of fact and more an exclamation of relief. But during 2020, it seemed as if everything was exploding with no relief in sight. Not just COVID-19, but also hateful political rhetoric. Police brutality, racial injustice, widening inequality. Record levels of anxiety, depression, stress. And just as our eight-person research team was about to launch our years-in-the-making classroom intervention to boost science outcomes, the pandemic changed everything.

Megan was one of seven high school students we worked with in a multi-year project called My STEM Story, a transdisciplinary collaboration led by scholars of media, education and psychology at the University of Oregon, University of Kentucky and an education research nonprofit called Inflexion. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project uses documentary-style storytelling videos to capture unscripted interactions and authentic stories from high school student mentees and undergraduate student mentors to motivate students of color and other underrepresented young people to pursue science careers. We planned to study how highlights from these stories of overcoming obstacles might affect how high school students view their potential as scientists. However, unanticipated roadblocks tested our own resolve—giving us our own experience of struggling through science. That pushed us to have more empathy for the students we aim to inspire and to think more creatively about our research approach.

To create the videos, we filmed mentor and mentee pairs of students who identify as Black, Latino/a, South Asian, and Persian as they shared lunches and laboratories while studying material science, chemistry, microbiological organisms and neurological brain functions. The pairs discussed their personal and professional interests from favorite foods to physics. Mentors shared stories about the obstacles and opportunities they faced in their undergraduate education. Mentees looked for advice and feedback from their near-peer mentors who had been in their shoes not too long ago. The mentors gave personal, authentic guidance to the mentees who asked questions as they explored what science could mean for them and their future.

Courtesy of Ed Madison.

These scenarios placed our subjects in tight quarters with shared equipment. Luckily, most of the mentoring took place prior to the pandemic, in summer 2019. Our research's next stage called for showing video highlights of these mentoring experiences to students in local high schools and engaging them in self-reflective exercises to boost their science motivation and achievement. In fact, we had completed the in-person training with enthusiastic and excited partner teachers just days before COVID-19 stopped our data collection, upended our intervention implementation, and challenged us to rethink how to proceed.

When our universities halted in-person research operations in March 2020, we presumed the closures would be temporary. Initially, we focused on shifting timelines and making minor adjustments to our in-classroom pilot tests. Yet as the weeks turned to months of campus and community closures, it became clear that we were not returning to normal anytime soon. Our team acutely felt the stress of the internalized drive for productivity that academia instills through ever-increasing reliance on profit maximization and austerity measures. Competitive national grants demand returns on investment through publications and scalable intervention materials. Professors and graduate instructors spend increased energy on emotional labor with struggling undergraduates who are also expected to proceed with “business as usual.” Although these stressors always simmer just below the surface in higher education, the pandemic highlighted them.

One effect COVID-19 exposed was pressure to press on to meet institutional goals and expectations from the “before time” despite needing an ethic of care for ourselves and each other as humans in the “after time.” This became more evident as our team dealt with personal challenges, such as undergoing medical procedures, facing mental health concerns, losing loved ones, balancing child care, managing lockdown isolation, and battling on-going screen fatigue. Despite trying to stay cooperative and supportive, we felt internal antagonism between pushing forward and pulling back in our research plans as team members disagreed on how to proceed, at what pace, and in what ways. Pre-tenure professors worried about productivity. Graduate students worried about meeting program milestones. Researchers worried about funds running dry. Tenured professors were thrust into leadership roles having to make impossible decisions.

In the midst of that tension, we witnessed and participated in the grassroots, global movement for equality and racial justice that swelled during 2020. As researchers and educators dedicated to developing STEM identity and equity approaches in racially diverse and historically marginalized youth, we reflected on these twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism colliding. We saw that the populations we seek to support through our research are the same populations most negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the least represented in the STEM fields working to stop the virus. Our research felt even more urgent.

Our digital storytelling videos showed undergraduate mentors modeling ways to overcome difficulties with their high school mentees. But these mentors also had lessons they taught us during this time. They told their mentees about the personal and academic challenges they faced: an unsupportive teacher, a parent’s mental illness, a disruptive health diagnosis. They also shared the strategies they used to overcome them, like creating routines and identifying supportive family members and friends. They revealed their experiences with self-doubt and uncertainty and explained how finding internal and external motivation kept them moving toward their goals. Surrounded by the rich stories of roadblocks and resilience from our near-peer mentoring pairs, we shifted from being experts to being learners. We adjusted and tried to respond to each other with support and kindness. In the face of a system that demands productivity at all costs, we created space to focus intentionally and purposefully on our humanity, and in slowing down, we found opportunity sparked again.

By reflecting on the challenges we faced in our lives, we began asking how living within the boundaries of COVID-19 restrictions might affect the students we had planned to study only a few months earlier. We asked ourselves: Could experiencing the world during COVID-19 lead students to engage with science in new and immersive ways? Might watching a mentor's video about how their motivation to give back to society shaped their science career choice have some significant influence on 10th-grade audiences?

We articulated 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 storytelling video about science in the pandemic, in which we also broadened our underrepresented populations to include a queer-identifying marine biologist mentor and Megan, a high school mentee with Native American indigenous heritage. Under pandemic guidelines, we filmed this new pair’s mentoring experience along the Oregon coast. This allowed us to challenge the dominant narratives about who can be a scientist and advance conversations about science’s role for the public good.

On the day we filmed, we experienced classic Oregon winter weather—cloudy, chilly, and drizzly. But Megan’s words—“It didn’t explode!”—were bigger than a chemical reaction inside a glass beaker. It was a statement of optimism. Despite the challenges we faced in 2020 and continue to face well into 2021, we found opportunities to reimagine academic life in a pandemic and move meaningful work forward.

While COVID-19 thwarted our plans to assess students' responses to our videos in classrooms, it also created new opportunities. We decided to modify our intervention and migrate it online. And it looks as though we’ll be able to implement it flexibly, demanding little energy from already-fatigued teachers. This self-directed online delivery may make the student experience more accessible and potentially available to more students, and with extended longevity, too.

We believe these changes will have a positive influence on more students, hopefully leading to increased equity and inclusion that will strengthen science as individuals from differing backgrounds collaborate and solve problems to benefit the greater good.

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