Stem-Based Virtual Learning Initiative Leads to Significant Growth in Student STEM and Essential Skills Scores
Since early spring, education experts have warned about the “Covid slide,” or the idea that students would see learning gaps much worse that previous years since the traditional “summer slide” was extended from three months to six months or more. Hurrying to find enrichment programs, private tutors, and learning pods, many parents found solutions to keep their kids on track amidst a global health crisis. But what about students with limited access—how could they be given opportunities to sustain learning, and possibly even grow skills in certain areas?
In the summer of 2020, three organizations joined forces to bring students in a high-need area of Bridgeport, Connecticut an opportunity to develop STEM-focused skills through a Project-Based Learning model from their homes. In the first cohort, a group of 12 students who are all residents of Bridgeport’s PT Barnum public housing complex participated in an eight-week, challenge-based program with 3DuxDesign, Urban Impact, and WhyMaker, to help students develop a sense of community after having been socially distanced for many months prior. With months of limited access to technology and private enrichment programs, students in this community were struggling academically, socially, and emotionally due to new challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, and many families welcomed the new opportunity.
3DuxDesign, an education STEM company with a focus on affordable architecture and engineering programs, and WhyMaker, an education consulting organization with a focus on STEM, teamed up with Bridgeport-based Urban Impact, an organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to the youth of the Bridgeport PT Barnum public housing complex. Through this partnership, they brought the students a STEM experience through a remote, play-based learning program called The Community Project.
The objective for students was to use the 3DuxDesign architecture kits, which were provided to each student to design a simple machine that would help people within their community. Many students began the program using a smart phone and were partnered with community-based mentors who received weekly training from WhyMaker consultants. During the course of the program, some students received loaned Chromebooks and other devices to communicate with mentors while social distancing. WhyMaker consultants supported mentors as they guided students though an exploration of the meaning of community, an idea that had sadly become foreign to many of these kids, especially after many months in isolation.
Once students had a better sense of community, they were mentored as they used design thinking skills paired with empathy to prototype adaptive structures that could help community members in need. While machine example varied greatly, some ideas included a lever to move mattresses, a pulley to get heavy groceries to the top floor, and even a ramp for an elderly dog unable to climb stairs.
Throughout the eight-week process, students widened their STEM vocabularies, learned new geometry concepts, and explored new ways to construct simple machines, all while boosting essential skills such as curiosity, critical problem solving, confidence, and empathy. One mentor who had been working with a male student shared, “he really learned how to identify real-world problems and connect the lessons to his everyday life.”
Following the program, students gathered online to present their simple machines in a virtual graduation ceremony. The excitement from students energized the online forum and students beamed with confidence and creativity. A highlight of the event was the passion that exuded from an eight-year-old girl who exclaimed that she will be an engineer when she grows up to help support the people in her community!
After only a few weeks, the growth these students experienced was phenomenal. Not only did the mentors and consultants share anecdotal growth feedback such as, “the 3DuxDesign projects started ‘pulling back the curtain’ in her mind of how some things work,” and “she really learned some valuable spatial lessons,” but the data outcomes were quite impressive.
As part of the initiative, students were given STEM and Essential Skills, or soft skills, pre-assessments and post assessments to measure growth. Prior to the program, only one out of 12 students met the expectations in the STEM skills measured. After only eight weeks, eight out of 12 students met or exceeded expectations. On average, students saw a 37% increase in overall STEM proficiency and a 70% increase in STEM skill scores. The essential skills that were measured included curiosity, reflection on learning, confidence, responsibility, and creativity. The average pre-assessment score for essential skills was 45%, but after eight weeks this rose to 79%, a 34% increase!
The results are clear—students were able to show significant growth in skills that are most meaningful for a modern workforce and a global future, all thanks to three organizations who donated time and resources as well as volunteers within the community who wanted to see greater opportunities for these students. A second cohort of students is currently underway and plans to continue the program into the school year are already in place.
The growth was achieved by utilizing community mentor, not formally trained educators, who worked closely with education consultants and supported implementation of the architecture kits and the community challenge. It’s a model that can be affordably replicated in communities around the country with little investment resulting in significant student outcomes.
While distance learning has its criticisms, and every parent and educator looks forward to the day when in-person learning can return to “normal,” there are ways to support student growth and learning when in-person school is just not feasible. Whether students have an existing passion for engineering and architecture, or they are completely new to the idea, allowing students to use creativity and imagination to build and explore helps ignite passion and develop real-world skills that will benefit students no matter what their future plans entail.