Virtual STEM outreach has positive side

When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, numerous schools and businesses switched to working from home and communicating through platforms like Zoom. Although the virtual format was a major and often difficult transition for many, the students and organizers of the Saturday Morning Science program discovered that online learning became a positive experience.

As a community outreach program at Baylor College of Medicine, Saturday Morning Science provides educational and career opportunities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and medical fields for Houston-area students from 7th to 12th grade. Baylor physicians, scientists, health professionals and graduate and medical students provide lectures, lead small-group sessions and mentor the students on their experiences in the health professions.

“During the pandemic, many of these students no longer had the ability to truly interact with their teachers and peers,” said Dr. Rayne Rouce, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the program. “The ability to meet online with others who have shared interests or experiences became a constant in many of their lives, and to have built-in mentors who are doing what they want to do in the future is so essential.”

Because the pandemic took a mental toll on many, especially on students who are still in grade school, the program restructured their curriculum to incorporate lessons on COVID-19. Baylor faculty led lessons that included a fact versus fiction about the virus and a panel on the importance of the coronavirus vaccine. They also invited one of Baylor’s child psychologists to lead a session on coping with COVID-19.

“Some of these kids are seniors and missing their senior year, and some are wondering if they are going to be able to attend college or if they will be able to continue playing sports,” Rouce said. “We helped answer several COVID-specific questions and provided a safe place for them as they went through the experience of understanding how COVID was changing their lives.”

As the program shifted to virtual workshops and lectures, Rouce noticed that the attendance began to grow without the need for transportation or limiting the amount of students who could attend in person. This became especially beneficial for the summer research program where the number of students are historically restricted since they shadow a scientist or physician in their lab.

“I always felt bad about having to restrict the number of summer research participants,” Rouce said. “This allowed anyone who was passionate about it and wanted to be involved to attend, which I think was a special and valuable experience, and opened their eyes to so many different types of research, medicine and careers.”  

During last year’s summer research program, Baylor researchers provided virtual presentations from within their lab. The researchers were encouraged to provide interactive lectures and workshops using a variety of pictures and video that replicate their experiences within the lab.

“At first, we didn’t know whether we would be able to replicate an in-person lab experience but we did,” Rouce said. “The students learned lab skills, science and were also exposed to clinical research, whereas the previous experience was limited to laboratory research.”

Ayushi Mohanty, a high school sophomore who joined the program in January 2020, said the in-person workshops and lectures were an incredible experience, but the switch to virtual learning was also enriching as it exposed her to different fields of science and medicine.

“I had the opportunity to hear many eminent physicians and scientists as panelists which otherwise would not have been possible in normal program schedules,” Mohanty said. “I participated in the virtual research program that involved science seminars and didactics with individual assignments and small group discussions covering many medical streams. The variety of topics and in-depth discussions bolstered my comprehension and prepared me towards knowing more about health science.”

The online platform not only reached additional students but also engaged their families and friends. Joauna Carter, a sophomore who joined the program for the third time last year, said they enjoyed being online with other students who have similar interests, and even had the opportunity to invite a friend.

“I enjoyed having something to look forward to on the weekends during the pandemic,” Carter said. “I always learn something in Saturday Morning Science that I am able to share with other people or apply in school. I look forward to the next program and especially summer research opportunities.”

Jordan Tidwell, a 7th grader who joined Saturday Morning Science last year, said although they struggled with the change to remote learning, the program encouraged them to continue excelling in sciences and toward their future career.

“During the pandemic, focusing on math, science and other subjects was very challenging, especially with three younger siblings and the hard transition to remote schoolwork, but Saturday Morning Science gave me the spark to learn as much as I could,” Tidwell said. “The program showed me all kinds of different career paths, some of which I never knew existed.”

Despite all the difficulties the pandemic presented, Rouce said it showed that the Saturday Morning Science Program would always maintain a virtual aspect so that the program is open to additional students, volunteers and faculty.

“The program allows students to see the translation and applicability of the subjects they are learning at school,” Rouce said. “There is so much research that shows how important it is for students to visibly see someone doing what they are interested in, especially someone who is from their city and from the same minority group. These students get to see someone who is 10 or 15 years ahead doing the job that they want, especially someone who looks like them and grew up where they grew up.”

Online registration for Saturday Morning Science Spring 2021 is now open. The session will be entirely virtual and consist of two-hour virtual sessions (using Zoom) on seven different Saturday mornings between mid-March and early June. See more online.

Saturday Morning Science

Dr. Rayne Rouce, second from right, with Saturday Morning Science students before the pandemic. Fortunately, COVID-19 has not dampened enthusiasm for the program and even has some benefits!

-By Kaylee Dusang