Study Identifies Strategies to Support STEM Students During Pandemic

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Gloved hand holds a vial which is being filled with a syringe. R. Mickens/© AMNH

A Museum study has identified strategies that can help college students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields navigate the ongoing disruptions to education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 70 percent of the students in the study, for which researchers surveyed and interviewed 190 college students, participated in college courses completely online. Challenges of learning remotely included missed opportunities to master foundational concepts, work with peers, and build relationships with peers and mentors. “You don’t really get interaction when it came to having online classes,” reported one sophomore. “If you were confused, the professor wouldn’t really know through a camera.”

Another lost opportunity during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to STEM students, was participation in lab or field-based courses, which help develop vital skills such as forming questions based on observations, planning and carrying out investigations, and analyzing data.

Overall, the study found the pandemic significantly disrupted the academic trajectories and decision-making of 85 percent of participants. And while 95% of STEM majors in the study reported they had not switched majors, those who did represent a poignant loss, according to Karen Hammerness, senior director of educational research and evaluation at the Museum and one of the authors of the study.

“Each of the students followed for the study was part of a larger cohort of New York City STEM-interested youth whom the Museum had followed for years as part of the National Science Foundation-funded “Staying in Science” initiative, which aims to illuminate supports and barriers these students face in pursuing science in college and careers and to develop more equitable and inclusive STEM learning experiences,” said Hammerness. “Many had been part of Museum programs such as the Science Research Mentoring Program, and 80 percent are from groups who have been historically underrepresented in STEM.”

In response to these findings, the study outlines a series of evidence-based recommendations that mentors, peers and families, and college faculty, higher education leaders, as well as students themselves, can use to help manage the challenging 2022 semester ahead.

Many of the recommendations focus on fortifying supportive networks to help STEM students continue in their chosen fields. Connecting with peers as study partners and for sharing information is important, given that students identify friends as the most-used source for academic and personal support.

Given the sense of isolation that can result from online learning, the study also emphasizes that it is essential for faculty to incorporate strategies for students to collaborate and build relationships with each other, leveraging specific functionalities in online collaborative platforms in addition to ensuring adequate time for class discussion.

For higher education leaders and other university administrators, the study affirms the critical importance of resources like mental health services and career planning, as students struggled more at colleges where these supports were not readily accessible.

The full set of recommendations from the study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation’s RAPID grant and conducted in partnership with the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is available as part of the final project report, “Supports and Challenges in an Educational Crisis: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Youth Stem Pathways.