The effects of remote learning on STEM education, the relevance of math and computer science in higher education, and the Monta Vista social climate
The pandemic has changed teaching and learning styles alike. Every day, Dr. Sanjeev Bhojraj, Alumni Professor of Asset Management at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School, logs online to teach over four hundred students from his desk. For Dr. Bhojraj, teaching is about more than just the content. It’s about communicating lessons effectively, and being able to see how students respond to them.
“The quality of the education…cannot be the same,” Bhojraj said. “There is something to be said for me…to be face-to-face and watching the body language and understand[ing] who’s getting it, who isn’t.”
Ms. Debbie Frazier, an AP Statistics and AP Computer Science Principles teacher at MVHS agrees. “The hands-on aspect of learning is just really, really not happening in the same way that it used to,” Frazier noted.
Around the country and across educational institutions, instructors recognize the challenges of teaching remotely. “[Hands-on learning is] a necessary step for cognitive development,” wrote Dr. Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, a STEM educator for the Boy Scouts of America. “Especially in subjects such as science.”
On the other side of the screen, Monta Vista students struggle to grasp new concepts and form meaningful relationships with their teachers and peers in an unfamiliar learning environment, as described by MVHS sophomore June Wang.
“I prefer the in-class experience,” Wang said. “School isn’t just about academic subjects.”
Without classroom resources and a physical forum to ask questions, as indicated by MVHS junior Vidhya Kalimani, many students feel less confident in their capabilities.
“I take quite a lot of re-iteration to actually remember things,” Kalimani said. “I’ve lost all social interaction..[and] I have so many more questions [for my teachers].”
For many, keeping up with content and asking for help is difficult in this environment. Thus, some students take the initiative to seek out external ways to supplement their learning.
Kalimani turns to Khan Academy and YouTube channels like the Organic Chemistry Tutor for help.
“I search up any doubt I have and watch a video on it,” she said. “I think now I’ve [also] really refined how to Google search specific questions.”
Despite using other materials to supplement her learning, she firmly believes that a teacher cannot be replaced. “We’re always gonna need a teacher,” Kalimani said. “Even if there’s videos or a billion sources out there, I’ll still have questions after watching it all.”
These sources augment classroom education well, as some teachers use Khan Academy, YouTube videos, or EdPuzzles to teach concepts they would have otherwise taught in person.
“They could replace mainstream education to some extent,” Bhojraj remarked. “[But] as you go further up the learning curve, or get deeper into an area of specialization, it gets harder and harder to replace a good teacher and a good in-person classroom experience.”
Educators and students are in agreement that a real classroom experience cannot be fully replaced by external resources. “[But] this is a pivotal point,” Frazier said. “A lot of people are actually asking those questions.”
In fact, she has experience developing other types of learning. “I was on a research team and we were working on making an intelligent textbook,” she explained. “You could, as you learned, ask it questions and it could answer, […] using artificial intelligence.” The project has continued making progress, and Frazier is interested in seeing where it will go. But working in intelligent learning has not changed her beliefs.
“No, you couldn’t replace a teacher with a textbook,” she said. “There are all sorts of pieces of evidence to support that.”
She explains that CollegeBoard and other sources provide videos on topics, but that finding good videos can be difficult. It’s easier to make sure students are learning when they communicate with a teacher.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education has been particularly impacted by this remote environment. Data gathered by UNICEF show that at least one third of schoolchildren in the world have lost access to education ever since schools have closed. “Maintaining equity within science education is the greatest issue of teaching STEM,” Veggeberg claimed.
Kalimani has always liked math and science, and is a member of the Monta Vista Robotics team. She has found that learning STEM has been very different in the past year. “I think labs, especially, are being impacted because you don’t get that real-life, hands-on experience.”
Bhojraj has seen the importance of having certain skills in higher education and the workforce. “Good analytical skills, math background, programming, [and] creativity are requirements,” Bhojraj remarked, speaking from his economics background. “Math is a must-have.”
He says math has always been a necessary foundation for much of what we do. But these skills might be difficult to acquire online.
Even in light of all this information, remote learning isn’t completely negative. Frazier’s APCSP students are learning how to use certain digital tools much faster, since they are already on their devices, and used to the online environment.
“We could really have a thorough discussion,” she said. “There have been some cool things like that, where things are actually working better.”
This is good news, as reports from recent years have shown that the United States ranks below many other countries in STEM subjects such as mathematics and science.
Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that the US is the 38th out of 71 countries in math, and the 24th in science. High school STEM education seems to have slowed down, as according to the NAEP, 40% of fourth graders, 33% of eighth graders and 25% of twelfth graders rank as ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math. In fact, in 2015, 38% of American twelfth graders scored at the lowest math performance level.
Frazier believes the key to bridging this international gap comes down to the application of knowledge. She recalls teaching geometry.
“We weren’t just memorizing a formula for a week and regurgitating it on a test or following some kind of rote process,” she explained. “We ended up building scale models of cities. It was real, applied work.”
Wang echoes this sentiment, discussing MVHS’s high pressure environment.
“Monta Vista puts more of an academic emphasis on STEM,” Wang said. “I have a lot of peers who are putting a lot of pressure on themselves trying to get that A. A lot of the time, people spend more time on their academic development of STEM than their actual applications of STEM.” She sees many students take specific math and science classes, and forget to apply the knowledge that they gather at school.
“Largely where knowledge gets stored is through authentic application,” Frazier said. The cause of the United States’s lack of successful STEM education may be the lack of application, and emphasis on rote skill. “[Not enough tests are] about thinking about a genuine problem and how to solve it.”
It’s imperative that we bridge these gaps in STEM education, because according to Bhojraj, technology is the future.
“I see a world where human beings are potentially being disintermediated,” Bhojraj said. “[Knowledge of] software like Python and Java is useful, as well as an understanding of sophisticated systems like artificial intelligence. It’s [only] a matter of time before it takes on a big role in our research, and it’s already taking on a bigger and bigger role.”
But applying subjects learned in the classroom is difficult online, especially since the effectiveness of STEM education may be significantly reduced when students are not able to collaborate.
“There’s a box that shows up on my screen with their name on it,” Frazier described. “But there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the other end.” Her AP Computer Science Principles class is project based, which she hopes will motivate her students to keep their cameras on and hold themselves accountable. Many projects have students learn in groups, and allow them creative freedom.
Teamwork also allows students opportunities for interaction with their peers that they may not receive otherwise. Bhojraj encourages the use of breakout rooms, but understands that though virtual interaction is doable, it is not authentic.
Though remote learning seems to be less effective than classroom education, there are some definite pros to staying home. Wang uses the time in between classes to exercise and complete schoolwork.
Kalimani doesn’t get as many assignments. “AP classes are known for their extensive work, but this year teachers also understand how extenuating circumstances are,” Kalimani said. “[So] I have less coursework.”
Bhojraj finds it convenient to teach from the comfort of his home. “I get up, I sit in front of my computer, and off I go,” he said. “I don’t have to get ready, I don’t have to do anything.” But he also understands that teaching and learning are not the same. “Is it for the better or for the worse?” he asked. “My personal opinion is, it’s for the worse.”
Despite the unfamiliar circumstances, educators have goals for the year. Frazier hopes that leaving her remote classroom, students learn about the world.
“I try to embed that in all my classes,” Frazier said. STEM is really just a tool to apply, and Frazier wants that to be a major takeaway from her classes.
It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to innovation and success in various STEM fields, some even driven by high schoolers. However, the impact of this global crisis on education has been significant, and is felt by both instructors and students. From a lack of personal relationships and collaboration to missing out on opportunities for hands-on experience, this remote environment is fraught with uncertainty and hope for the future.