RAPID: Supports and Challenges in an Educational Crisis: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Youth STEM Pathways
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a deeply disruptive impact on the lives and learning experiences of college students across our nation. As campuses shuttered and moved to online and hybrid learning experiences, students faced challenges accessing the resources their academic institutions provided, including housing, food, academic support programs, technology labs, consistent internet connection, health services, and on-campus jobs. Our NSF-funded RAPID research study is examining the impact of the pandemic on the academic pathways of college youth and identifying the critical supports that could help students counteract the repercussions of the pandemic on their trajectories. In this mixed-methods study, we examine the experiences of 190 science-interested college students who are also participants in a larger NSF-funded longitudinal study AMNH is conducting of youth science career pathways (n=560). For the RAPID research study, our questions include: 1) What is the impact of the educational disruptions and loss of opportunities due to the pandemic on youth who are typically underrepresented in science? and 2) What types of supports and resources are youth drawing upon to mitigate these disruptions as they formulate new plans and make decisions during the pandemic in relation to their academic and professional pursuits? To learn more about this project and read the mid-project report of preliminary findings please visit www.amnh.org/stayinginscience.
Patterns in our findings so far
Three main findings stand out to us in our data so far. First, nearly 50% of the college students in the study report that their academic trajectory has been greatly or moderately affected by the pandemic. When asked about the specific concerns that affected their decision-making, students most frequently reported challenges related to remote learning (e.g., learning virtually, fears about performance in a remote setting), physical displacement (e.g., moving out of dorms, moving location during the pandemic), and loss of opportunities (e.g., loss of in-person learning experiences; loss of relationships and networks; loss of access to internships and jobs). Concerns around “remote learning” were mentioned most frequently among students who reported the greatest amount of impact from COVID-19.
Second, we find that students who are closer to completing their degree are more likely to report that the pandemic is presenting challenges to degree and major requirements. For example, 28.6% of fourth-year students reported these concerns, compared with 21.4% of first-year students; 25% of second-years, and 25% of third-years. These findings suggest that COVID-related disruptions are more likely to be an obstacle to completion of advanced level coursework and degree requirements, for students who are close to completing a declared major. Almost a quarter of the students in our sample who were planning to declare or who had already declared a STEM major reported that the pandemic was affecting their ability to complete degree requirements.
Finally, STEM majors in our study said that their highest-level concerns were finding a paid research or internship opportunity, grades, the quality of learning STEM content in a virtual environment, and isolation. Many were concerned about their grades and academic performance due to family distractions/responsibilities. Although many noted that faculty were trying to get all of the content delivered in an online format, students reported that STEM coursework often does not translate in accessible ways to online learning environments, and many were struggling to learn rigorous material online. Students were also concerned that even if they were successful in completing online STEM coursework, they would be ill-prepared for advanced courses and on-site lab courses when they become available. This concern was coupled with feelings of isolation and not being able to form or maintain study groups, which are critical in STEM studies.
An important outcome of our study is that our research revealed specific concerns raised by students that have direct and clear implications in terms of actionable steps parents, mentors, academic chairs, career counselors, faculty, and students themselves can do to support students during this time. For instance, the need for specific supports for juniors and seniors; the need for more support around course requirements; the need for support around foundational STEM concepts where, due to remote learning, students may have developed more fragile and less strong or deep understanding; the desire and hope for more personalized support at this time; and the need for quiet spaces to study—all these needs that were expressed by students could be addressed, we argue, with some strategic and quick work by institutions and without a great deal of time and effort. They could make a tremendous difference to our participants and students like them. Due to the nature of our RAPID grant (NSF #2033515) and our aim to engage in work that would be easily translatable into shifts that institutions could make to support and respond to student concerns, we have worked to translate these findings into a set of appropriate and reasonable approaches that may actually help students in real time. We believe that these approaches can be fairly easily enacted within colleges and universities, as well as by those who support STEM-interested youth. Given the increased understanding of and appreciation for the impact of the pandemic upon marginalized communities, we argue that these shifts—underscored by our discussions with our participants, 80% of whom are BIPOC students—are especially important to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic and capitalize upon the potential of these youth to pursue powerful work in STEM.
Alumni co-researcher fellows and the process of working with co-researchers
In order to center youth voices and standpoints so that our research is with youth rather than on youth, our study includes two Youth Co-Researchers who are college students and alumni of the NYC Science Research Mentoring Consortium. They participated for four years as co-researchers in our prior longitudinal research on youth pathways. Our Youth Co-Researchers provided vital input on the design and pilot-testing of our survey and interview instruments, ensuring that they were youth-friendly, clear and succinct, and sensitive to the unprecedented challenges college students are currently facing. They also conducted case study interviews and data analysis and are writing conceptual memos that bring together their analysis of the data with their own experiences. They are also playing a key role in the dissemination of emerging findings, including co-authoring reports, participating in interviews about the study, and supporting social media campaigns. The participation of our Youth Co-Researchers has been integral to our ability to conduct this research during the pandemic, allowing the project staff to interact with authenticity and humility.
Challenges and potential affordances of conducting research in the pandemic
One of the potential challenges of conducting research during the pandemic has been the recruitment and retainment of participants. Youth are facing unprecedented challenges in their lives, including sudden changes in housing situations, unreliable or inconsistent internet access, and a shift from in-person to online learning environments, and they must balance these shifts and pressures despite the fatigue of adjusting to life in virtual environments. However, because this research is based on a four-year longitudinal study that was conducted almost entirely online (online surveys and interviews conducted via Zoom conference call) and we already had established relationships and connections with our participants, our survey response rates were higher than anticipated (34%), and the response rate to interview invitations has been close to 90%, thus far.
Another key challenge has been developing survey and interview questions that are sensitive and do not cause more harm. Many of our youth participants have experienced great loss this last year (e.g., loss of family members to COVID-19) and are struggling to access mental and physical health resources in addition to the academic resources they need. Our Youth Co-Researchers have been a vital component of our ability to craft these instruments.
Often in education research, shifting the timeline for data collection or analysis by one to three months is not considered a major setback. However, because we were collecting data during a crisis and the situation for college students was changing with each month, it was important for us to get the survey out while the questions were still relevant. For example, a section of our survey focused on whether college students were living on campus or at home to get a snapshot of the situation. However, most of the nation’s colleges went remote in the first week of December 2020, and since our survey was released at that time, the data we collected reflected this change in the directive of the colleges. Researching people's experiences during a pandemic requires timely data collection and explicit notation of when the data were collected when findings are shared.
The urgency of the implications of our work guided us to disseminate our findings through more immediate forms of communication, including mid-project reports, blogs, and social media campaigns (Instagram, Twitter) intended for stakeholder audiences, which included students themselves, faculty and staff in higher education, families, and out-of-school time programs for youth.