Moving a Summer Program to the Virtual World — While Closing the Digital Divide

Jul 18, 2020

Teaching is the art of developing students to think critically for themselves and to work with others to create solutions and advocate for their ideas. For those working in education, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink how we engage with young people.

As the pandemic unfolded, our team at SMASH, a nationwide summer residential program for STEM education serving students of color, had to move an established, 17-year program into a virtual learning environment. This was new to us and, needless to say, presented a challenge: We had to evolve to stay true to our mission while, at the same time, deliver a program that worked for our learners.

Our experience leading up to this summer’s program (running throughout July) was both humbling and exhilarating. Along the way, we focused on five areas that we felt were necessary to serve our community of young people:

Mitigate the Digital and Connectivity Divide

Access to computers and a dependable internet connection is critical to delivering any form of online learning. This was particularly true of our program as our students needed to successfully leverage the design, prototyping and augmented reality software we leverage in our STEM curriculum and be able to connect using tools such as Zoom.

We also knew that not every learner in our community had the technology resources to access these opportunities. To counter these gaps, we provided our students with laptops and hot spots where necessary. For some students, we also needed to provide headsets to help mitigate in-home distractions and improve communication.

Build a Healthy Virtual Culture

Many high schoolers from underserved communities have never interacted in virtual professional or learning environments before. Moreover, students have different at-home settings, and not everyone is comfortable sharing their private environments with their peers.

All of our students are being educated on how to interact in professional learning environments. This includes basics like expectations on muting and creating virtual backgrounds, and best practices on virtual engagement. Discussions focus on providing constructive—rather than critical—feedback to peers and instructors, and implementing digital best practices such as establishing daily checks-ins, setting well-defined agendas before each meeting, and clearly defining participation roles.

Create Real-World Context

As high school students begin to further develop their identity and voice, we had to be intentional about ensuring that they authentically connect with the work to be done. In this vein, we deemed it essential to stay rooted in an integrated project-based learning approach that provides students with the opportunity to tackle real-world problems relevant both to them and their communities.

STEM is relevant to a wide range of fields—even beyond STEM professions. Ensuring our revised curriculum helps 15 year olds see how STEM is used to solve real-world problems is critical to driving engagement in this new learning environment. Certainly this is the case with the pandemic as data scientists, epidemiologists and engineers all came together early on to help understand the impact of the disease and generate solutions to the healthcare crisis.

The curriculum also deeply integrates design thinking as a framework for solving complex problems, with a focus on empathy. Understanding a user’s needs and context in order to develop solutions through an equitable lens is key—and so is the ability to adapt and adjust. Design thinking is not a linear process, rather one that requires multiple iterations, a growth mindset, and perseverance.

Offset Financial Gaps

This summer, we are providing our scholars with weekly stipends to help them mitigate wages they could have earned in lieu of participating in our program, and to help offset any household income challenges experienced as a result of the current economic downturn. While providing incentives to young people to pursue their education has been met with controversy, the income inequalities faced by our students and their families are real, and we felt it was important to reward their commitment to education.

Foster Community and Competition

A sense of community is vital in any learning process. And with students being able to connect with one another virtually without being bound to geography, the team sought opportunities to increase peer engagement and network building across the country. Our students’ projects will culminate in a national pitch competition that will enable cross-regional engagement and friendly competition—all with the goal of driving for excellence.

In preparation, students are spending the summer doing weekly mock presentations, providing constructive feedback to each other, and iterating their projects to incorporate learnings. Students will pitch the solutions they prototyped to address the real-world problem of their choice to a panel of judges. The competition will showcase the students’ best work to the national SMASH community and friends of the program, allow them to receive immediate feedback and provide them with an opportunity to win scholarship prizes.

As STEM educators, we believe in the power of learning and iterating. These times have shown us the importance of not staying fixed in our ideas of what should be and, instead, seek out growth opportunities when faced with the unexpected. With continued reflection and evidence-based evaluation, we are confident that we will learn from the five focus areas and use the learnings to further drive the impact of our programming.


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