CHICAGO – When COVID-19 abruptly shut down Prairie-Hills Junior High School in Markham, Illinois, teacher Sheena Birgans-Wright was determined to see that the crisis would not derail the robust STEM program she’d built from scratch during the past decade.
Equally adamant were her students’ parents, who had been excited that a STEM program was thriving in a predominantly Black and low-income school district.
Despite their best intentions, the pandemic ended up severely hampering the hands-on and collaborative aspects of the school’s STEM program.
“Even when our students were able to come back to school in person, the social distancing guidelines prevented us from doing most of our activities, because the students needed to be 6 feet apart,” Birgans-Wright said. “For our students who were remote learning, they needed other people to help them problem solve ... it was tough for them, and for me as their teacher.”
Indeed, while the pandemic disrupted STEM education for students across the state, regardless of ZIP code and demographics, the potential for existing disparities to worsen in underserved communities prompted a call to action for teachers like Birgans-Wright.
From home delivery of STEM supply kits and Wi-Fi hot spots to offering internships and dual credit courses, Chicago-area educators have spent 16 months scrambling to mitigate the pandemic’s damage to fledgling programs that were enrolling students facing formidable challenges even before the arrival of the coronavirus.
When Englewood STEM High School opened its doors in September 2019 to an inaugural class of around 400 students, the breathtaking $85 million campus on the city’s South Side was heralded for its state-of-the-art science labs, pristine athletic fields and even its own medical center.
“A month after we opened the high school, there was a work stoppage because of the teachers strike, and after winter break, there was a full-blown pandemic,” Principal Conrad Timbers-Ausar said last week.
“The pandemic posed challenges, like it did for the entire world, but I’m also seeing great opportunities that came out of this, because our staff and students have grown even stronger,” Timbers-Ausar said.
While some families were eager to have their children return to the classroom when Chicago Public Schools reopened for in-person instruction in February, Timbers-Ausar said many teens who opted to continue with remote learning displayed enthusiasm and tenacity.
“I recall talking to one parent who explained their student was in Mississippi with his grandmother, but he was still logging in and not skipping classes,” Timbers-Ausar said.
A contingent of students will be arriving for summer school this week, and Englewood STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math — will unveil its recently expanded makerspace in the fall, he said.
While Timbers-Ausar said he anticipates that the high school’s 1,088 students in grades nine to 11 will need extra support when they transition to in-person classes in the fall, he was pleased to learn recently that 37 students earned grades of B or higher in dual credit courses they took at Chicago-area universities in the spring.
“Black and brown students traditionally have systemically been underrepresented in STEM areas, so we’re doing our part,” Timbers-Ausar said.
For LeeAndra Khan, executive director at Epic Academy, a charter high school on the city’s Southeast Side, the odds stacked against students of color having equitable STEM opportunities was underscored when she stepped up to accept her diploma years ago as one of the only Black women enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“I remember my parents asking me before my graduation ceremony where I would be sitting, because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to see me, and I told them, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be able to find me,’” said Khan, who spent a decade working as a civil engineer in Chicago before becoming an educator.
Khan, who grew up on the city’s South Side, said she was fortunate to have received a rigorous education at Whitney Young Magnet High School and to have strong family role models, including a grandfather who was a professor of engineering and an uncle who was a nuclear engineer.
“You cannot be what you cannot see, and for me, I didn’t know there was anything other than going to college after you graduated from high school,” Khan said.
“So I asked myself the question, ‘How do I make more opportunities for Black and brown students, especially girls, to engage with STEM and to understand that anything is possible?’” Khan said. “I want all of our students to see college as not just a destination, but part of the journey and a path to the rest of their life.”
Unlike Khan, recent Epic graduate Sabine Ramirez will be a first-generation college student when she arrives at Purdue University in the fall on a full-ride academic scholarship.
As one of eight children growing up in a Latino family in the Hegewisch neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side, Ramirez recalled being one of the few girls enrolled in her first STEM class, which was being offered by a nonprofit organization.
“There were about 15 students, only five girls, the rest were boys, but in that class, we all respected each other, so I never felt isolated,” Ramirez said.
Still, when the pandemic shut down her high school and halted the STEM classes offered by community groups including After School Matters, Ramirez felt devastated.
“Engaging in STEM online is very hard, because it’s usually hands-on and collaborative,” said Ramirez, who spent much of her remote school days behind a laptop in her bedroom, keeping her fingers crossed that her family’s Wi-Fi hot spot would keep its connection.
“There were a lot of kids who just didn’t want to be on camera, and didn’t want to talk or participate, and I really felt bad for my teachers,” she said.
“But there was one kid in our class who really kept us going, saying things like, ‘We’ve got this!’ Which I really appreciated,” Ramirez said.
Navigating the college application process during the pandemic also proved “insanely stressful,” Ramirez said, recalling her anxiety upon waiting for a response from Purdue.
“I was just so scared that I wouldn’t get into any college, so when I saw I was accepted at Purdue, I was thrilled,” Ramirez said. “I kept on reading, and realized. ‘Oh, my gosh. ... I’m getting money too!’ I’m just so grateful and still can’t believe it.”
Nevertheless, the disparities in equitable STEM opportunities for students of color was writ large in at least one pre-pandemic study, which found that just 2.2% of Latinos, 2.7% of African Americans, and 3.3% of Native Americans have earned a university degree in STEM fields.
Perhaps most troubling is underrepresented groups end up being locked out of STEM-related professions like manufacturing, computer science and health care, where qualified candidates are not only in strong demand but are typically offered dramatically higher starting salaries than many other entry-level jobs.
Christine Royce, a past president of the National Science Teaching Association, said when the pandemic school shutdowns revealed a digital divide across the U.S., students faced formidable hardships as their STEM classes moved online.
“The process of science is interactive and hands-on, and when you don’t have the tactile connection you’d get in the chemistry or physics lab, and all of those substantive experiences, it’s just not the same,” Royce said.
While some well-funded school districts were able to offer opportunities to engage in STEM online, Royce said “then we started to see the problem of the technology gap widening, and schools and students that didn’t have access to Wi-Fi and the needed equipment really struggled.”
Royce said although disparities existed long before the pandemic, she is hopeful that educators will help their students understand the critical role STEM professionals played in overcoming the greatest hurdles during the crisis, from the scientists in labs who developed the COVID-19 vaccines to the engineers who designed the refrigerated containers needed for safe storage and transport.
“Once students are back in the classroom again in the fall, STEM teachers will have opportunities to make all of these connections,” Royce said.
Wheeling High School Principal Jerry Cook said when classes moved online in March 2020, his STEM teachers quickly put together student supply kits that were delivered to families at a drive-up station outside the suburban school.
Teachers also ensured that students had Wi-Fi access, and checked in with families to see if their students needed extra support.
And with STEM representing the most popular choice in the high school’s Career Pathways program, Cook said teachers continued to connect students with internship and job opportunities at area hospitals, manufacturing sites and other businesses.
Teens enrolled in Wheeling’s STEM program also spent a recent week running a mini-STEM camp for local elementary school students.
“Our students have gone through a lot during the pandemic. ... They’ve lost family members, and many families lost their income,” Cook said.
“When they come back to school in the fall, we need to first make sure they’re socially and emotionally ready to learn, that they feel comfortable and safe, and that we’re addressing all of the trauma they went through,” Cook said.
In Markham, Birgans-Wright — one of 10 educators across the U.S. named an Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year for her work with students from underserved and historically underrepresented communities — is busy teaching summer school, with a recent lesson featuring an appearance from a robot named Sphero.
This fall, she plans to restart her Girls Who Code club at the junior high, and remains confident that despite the hardships they have borne, the pandemic has not broken the spirits of her students.
“By the time they graduate, oh my gosh, they are rock stars,” Birgans-Wright said.