The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of Americans in countless ways, and the impact can especially be felt by teachers and students.

When the pandemic shut down schools in March, administrators and teachers scrambled to figure out ways to continue educating students remotely. Sparse internet connections, limited equipment and resources, and paper packets sent to students with sometimes minimal guidance posed challenges, while teachers were unable to complete any sort of student assessment or standardized testing.

Those spring school closures coupled with summer break caused a six-month learning hiatus for many students. This limited educational access has the potential to magnify urban/rural, racial, socioeconomic, and other disparities in education for students in underserved communities.

Of course, with challenge comes opportunity. The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) is connecting people across distances, combining technologies and activities to link individuals and groups together from separate locations, as well people — researchers, educators, and outreach coordinators — who can support these efforts at every stage of the process, from conception and implementation to troubleshooting and assessment.

With its Center for Educational Networks and Impacts (CENI), ICAT is supporting teams of Virginia Tech researchers who are reimagining education by creating and sharing dynamic learning resources through a broad network being built by learners across distances and educational environments.

These projects not only continue the university’s educational outreach work to Virginia’s K-12 students, despite the obstacles created by COVID, but also offer innovative approaches that can support classroom instruction, offer new methods for assessment, and minimize achievement gaps even after schools return to regular schedules.

Girls Launch!

Started in 2017 by a Virginia Tech graduate student, Girls Launch! sends Virginia Tech women researchers into kindergarten classrooms to engage students in science activities. The researchers, who are mainly graduate students, discuss topics related to their fields of discipline — everything from brains, chemistry, and DNA to lemurs in Madagascar — and serve as female scientist role models to children at a point in their development where they are beginning to form gender role assumptions.

The program has provided 20 in-person visits to kindergarten classrooms in Giles County since it began. While class visits were discontinued after coronavirus-related school closures in the spring, the program has continued with the support of an ICAT rapid response grant. This funding is supporting the work of 10 women graduate students, who have created short, kindergarten-friendly videos related to their research.

There are now 10 videos, each with an accompanying activity guide featuring easy-to-implement, age-appropriate activities. Teachers can use these videos in their classes, whether remote or in-person, and the activity guides can be sent home in paper packets for families without internet access.

This work has expanded the reach of the program, with a library of videos that can be shared broadly with schools and families, and served as an experiential learning opportunity for the participating graduate students, who focused on communicating their research in more engaging and understanding ways. 

The project lead is Carolyn J. Kroehler, associate director of the Center for Communicating Science and instructor for Virginia Tech’s Graduate School. Other project team members are Vanessa Diaz, research assistant professor of psychology in the College of Science; and Patricia Raun, professor of performance and voice, School of Performing Arts, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and director of the Center for Communicating Science. Community partners are Christina Martin, STEM coordinator for Giles County Public Schools, and Lori Evans, kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary/Middle School in Giles County.

Supporting K-12 STEM remote learning in underserved communities

When students go on summer break each year, they typically lose some of the skills they achieved during the school year. This is particularly true in rural areas, where students might not have access to reliable internet connectivity and/or educational summer enrichment programs. COVID extended this year’s summer break for Virginia students, and while school has reconvened for the year, most are following a modified schedule that includes some amount of remote learning.

This project was created to help bridge the educational gaps students are facing by providing STEM-based educational activities. These pre-packaged, hands-on learning activity kits focuses on water safety and sustainability. Each learning opportunity is appropriate for multiple grade levels and can engage the entire family. The kits have been shipped to six Virginia Cooperative Extension offices across the state to be distributed to families.  

This work is supported by an ICAT rapid response grant, as well as funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation. Though initially motivated by the pandemic, this work can continue to help close the achievement gap for underserved Virginia students when regular school schedules resume.

Leading this project is Leigh-Anne Krometis, associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Other researchers are Madeline Schreiber, professor and associate department head of the geosciences department in the College of Science; Durelle Scott, associate professor of biological sciences engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Luke Juran, associate professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment; Erika Bonnett, 4-H specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Erin Ling, water quality Extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Facing the unknown: Preparing curriculum for students in math

Also created to help bridge the COVID-enhanced learning gap while giving teachers a much-needed informal student assessment tool, this project involves the creation of integrative STEM design kits for current fifth-grade math students. Developed in collaboration with a Giles County teacher and the school system’s STEM director, the kits reinforce fourth-grade math concepts that the students might have missed in the spring and introduce new fifth-grade math content.

The kits provide students with design challenges, into which teachers can fold multiple instructional concepts. Not only do these interactive activities introduce students to new information and help reinforce previous lessons, they offer teachers an opportunity to assess students’ abilities and knowledge without the stress of formal testing.

Created for use in both in-person and remote learning environments and in coordination with the Virginia Standards of Learning, two of the lessons and design kits are currently being implemented into the classroom curriculum. After this pilot project, the lessons will be made available for teachers and could possibly be customized for other topic areas.

This project is funded by a Steven and Karen Jones SEAD Grant from ICAT’s Center for Educational Networks and Impacts.

Tiffany Drape, assistant professor of agricultural, leadership, and community education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, leads the project. Community partners are Margy Journell, fifth-grade math teacher in Giles County Public Schools, and Christina Martin, STEM coordinator for Giles County Public Schools.