Researchers study challenges underrepresented STEM students face during COVID-19

Molly Waring
Molly Waring

In July 2020, Professor Sherry Pagoto and Associate Professor Molly Waring of the Department of Allied Health Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources were awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on underrepresented STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students. This pandemic is estimated to affect at least two cohorts of STEM students in an academic field that is already considered rigorous.

“We were concerned about the impact of COVID on STEM students, and we wanted to investigate what those impacts were and if there were differential based factors such as gender, race and ethnicity or socioeconomic status,” Waring says. “We wanted to understand where there might be negative impacts that are affecting certain groups of students more than others, with the idea that we can then try to counteract some of these negative impacts. Science works best when all voices are represented and we want to retain our current cohort of diverse students.”

In collaboration with Nate Brown of Pennsylvania State University and with assistance from members in the Math Alliance, a national organization of faculty in mathematics and statistical majors, the team recruited fifty-nine students from across the United States to participate in focus groups during summer 2020. The students were equally split male and female, with half the students meeting criteria for low socioeconomic status and equal representation across racial and ethnic groups.

For students majoring in STEM fields, remote learning can be particularly difficult as learning is enhanced with hands-on or laboratory experiences. Additionally, many students that rely on employment to support their education have been affected by job losses during the pandemic. There have also been fewer opportunities for research experiences and internships as many labs were forced to shut down.  

In the focus groups, some students expressed concern that they would not be adequately prepared for subsequent semesters in STEM courses, as not all universities were prepared for remote learning and not all students were able to learn remotely.

“Moving forward, we encourage universities to develop a detailed plan in case of another emergency that would require them to switch to remote instruction,” Waring says. “We need effective strategies for remote learning and ways to connect to our students. And there are also some positives that we have learned from this pandemic, such as having faculty be more flexible. I hope we can retain some of these lessons and support those bright students of all backgrounds.”

Students were asked which instructor strategies, tools and technologies were most helpful. Hybrid learning which included both synchronous and asynchronous classes was preferred, with many students preferring live remote lectures that were also recorded and posted, allowing students with interruptions in their home environment to review later. Other tools such as discussion boards, study groups, lecture notes or slides were mentioned as well as communication platforms and streaming/video conferencing platforms.

Ineffective strategies included, increased workload relative to pre-shutdown, prerecorded lectures that did not provide the opportunity to ask questions, lack of a communication strategy, tool or technology, and little guidance on technological strategies, large files that could not be downloaded, tests that didn’t allow students to skip difficult questions and return later, long-form or outdated lecture recordings, poor quality recordings, excessive assignments such as on discussion boards, and vague communication from instructors.

Students were sensitive to feeling that instructors cared about them. Positive instructor behavior included leniency and or flexibility with respect to course policies or assessments such as allotting more time for assignments, as well as instructor responsiveness and accessibility and words of encouragement. Students appreciated instructors checking in with them and one-on-one opportunities.

Some negative experiences included instructors replacing exams with class projects that required more time, online videos that exceeded the time of regular classes, issues with responsiveness or ability to contact instructors. In addition, many students found watching video lectures more difficult than in-class instruction and needed more breaks, rewinding what they didn’t absorb. They had difficulty with focus and not being able to ask questions. Finally, students felt that some instructors were not prepared for emergency remote instruction.

“One thing that has been challenging from the faculty perspective of this is many faculty members had not received training in effective remote learning, especially last spring when many instructors had only a couple weeks’ notice to adapt their courses to be taught remotely,” Waring says. “I certainly understand the students’ perspective of their wide range of experience with remote learning.” Waring also notes the broad range of resources provided by the UConn Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to support course instructors during the pandemic.

She says, “CETL has provided a wealth of trainings and individual support for faculty looking to increase their teaching effectiveness while connecting with students remotely.”

Students participating in the focus groups also shared their concerns about the fall 2020 semester, including both concerns about returning to campus and about learning remotely from home. The most common concern for students was being infected with COVID-19 and spreading it to family members. They were also worried about noncompliance to COVID guidelines by many students on campus. Additional student concerns included apprehension over instructional quality during remote learning, impacts on social interaction, lack of hands-on experiential learning, and struggles with remote learning such as difficulty focusing, inadequate technology/internet access, and family home environment.

In terms of social interaction with their peers, most students did not find that social media entirely replaced face-to-face contact but was an addition to their overall social experience. The absence of social togetherness has led to a feeling of isolation during the pandemic.

“People have become creative at finding ways to connect during the pandemic,” says Waring. “But many college students are in a life stage where social interaction is about being with your peers and making friends and romantic connections, and the lack of in-person activities has been very hard for many undergraduate students.”

Waring and team developed a survey based on insights provided by the focus groups. Then, in December 2020 and January 2021, their team recruited more than 1,000 undergraduate students from over 100 colleges and universities to complete this survey. While they are currently analyzing these data, Waring shared some of their preliminary findings.

“We expected the pandemic to decrease some students’ sense of belonging in STEM or erode their confidence and motivation to succeed in STEM. While we did see that happening for many students, we were a little surprised that for some students remote learning increased their sense of belonging, confidence and motivation to succeed in STEM. We’re interested in looking at what factors affected these students to help current and future students succeed in STEM.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges in terms of public health, economics, and education, but I have been really inspired by how faculty, students and universities have risen to the challenge to continue to engage in meaningful intellectual thought and research,” Waring asserts. “I am impressed by this generation of undergraduate students that have persisted through this difficult period and I am looking forward to seeing them take the world by storm and see the good they do throughout their lives and careers.”

The research in this article was supported by a RAPID grant, Proposal no. 2028341, from the National Science Foundation.

By Kim Colavito Markesich

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