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Pressure on STEM from Covid and Inequity

I am BIO
November 9, 2021

Not only do we need STEM students, but we also need them from every corner of the population, because innovation thrives through diverse perspectives; through the people who bring both their talents and backgrounds to the work. In this episode, we dig into the importance of kids learning about STEM early in their educations, the impact of the pandemic on students and teachers, and what the future of STEM education looks like.


Barak Balva, Sanofi

Kimberly Bryant, Black Girls Code

Jen Colvin, Learning Undefeated

Jo Webber, STEMconnector

Speaker 1 (00:01):

Educators are still grappling with the hardships of the pandemic. Many are still trying to figure out the best way to keep their kids engaged, and that also includes a boost in what we call science, technology, engineering, and math programs, or STEM education.

Theresa Brady (00:24):

Science, technology, engineering, and math education, STEM. To foster the next generation of researchers and life changing biomedical innovation, we will need trained STEM students. We wondered if the pandemic may have slowed the pipeline. And not only do we need STEM students, but we also need them from every corner of the population, because innovation thrives through diverse perspectives, through the people who bring both their talents and backgrounds to the work. In this episode, we dig into the importance of kids learning about STEM early in their educations, and we explore the impact of the pandemic on students and teachers. Lastly, we get a glimpse of what the future of STEM education looks like. I'm Theresa Brady, executive producer, sitting in for Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, and you're listening to I am BIO.

Theresa Brady (01:34):

These last two years have been stressful for all school aged children. The limited hands on learning has impacted STEM education from grade school through PhD programs. We start today with the conversation with Barak Balva, who was a student at Loyola University in Chicago when the pandemic hit. We asked him how the shutdown affected his studies.

Barak Balva (01:55):

I'm going to be a senior research associate in a cell line development in gene therapy group for Sanity, which is a pharmaceutical company. It's a little surreal thinking back and looking at the time period, because I remember, obviously, when the outbreak was happening in China, we were hearing about it.

Barak Balva (02:15):

And I remember early March when it was starting to become more and more prominent in the States. Remember we were all sitting, we had like a lab meeting and our PI was telling us, "Hey, guys, just start freezing down cell lines. If you have any experiments, you might want to start wrapping them up because we really just don't know what's going to happen." And we thought at the time, "That's absolutely surreal. This is a research center. People are working on so many different projects for so many different types of diseases, different fields. It's like an entire institution." So the idea of it being shut down was just... No one really processed it and no one really actually thought it would happen. And then low and behold, of course, mid-March, they actually shut down the entire institution. But the thing with research is experiments can be taking weeks, sometimes months to go along. And it's not necessarily just like, "All right, snap of a finger, get all the data you have, put it together and then just analyze it." A lot of experiments just went unfinished.

Barak Balva (03:10):

The way Loyola at least did it, for the first few months, you could only really access the research center. It was only the labs that were actually working with coronavirus, which all lot of people are surprised to hear that coronavirus studying was actually a thing before this pandemic, but we have three labs on our floor alone that were studying coronavirus independent of the pandemic. And then I think throughout the summer, they were relaxing the restrictions a little bit and it was like one or two people from each lab could start coming in. But our lab, for example, had 14 people. So it was obviously priority based. We have postdocs and our highest level PhDs who actually need to be graduating. They had priority for coming in. I didn't do too many experiments once the pandemic really hit. It just wasn't really feasible. It's surreal looking at it now, because especially I'm here right now at Loyola, and besides for mask wearing, everything is mostly just back to normal. And it's kind of funny to think that last summer, that was absolutely not the case.

Theresa Brady (04:10):

For Barak, it appears the worst is over. It's comforting to know that university students are back in labs, masks on, and experimenting again.

Speaker 4 (04:21):

I love science because you could research about a lot of things and share your research to others and your research could go to different parts of the world and how it could soon affect other people and maybe help the world in some way.

Theresa Brady (04:39):

In our research into the challenges that STEM students were facing, we came across a great program that persevered through the pandemic.

Jen Colvin (04:47):

Hi, everyone. My name is Jennifer Colvin. I am the chief innovation officer at Learning Undefeated. Learning Undefeated has been around a long time and most people actually probably know us by our old name, which was MdBio Foundation. Our organization was started in the '90s to support Maryland's nascent bioscience industry. So in the early 2000s, we shifted our focus to STEM education and we built the first mobile laboratory in the state of Maryland at that time. And then just recently in 2019, we actually changed our name to Learning Undefeated. We saw the need to grow a little bit and we had had a lot of national opportunities to work in STEM education, so we changed our name to Learning Undefeated, and now we are committed. Learning Undefeated drives equity and race and gender in STEM.

Theresa Brady (05:37):

Learning Undefeated specializes in bringing mobile lab experiences to students in rural and underserved communities. The mobile lab allows them to bring the field trip to the students if the school is too large or can't manage field trips.

Jen Colvin (05:51):

Our mobile laboratories are tractor trailers. They look just like labs inside. They use the same countertop equipment, cabinets that you might see in the labs across the state of Maryland. We also have a bus that takes students to Mars. Our newest mobile laboratory format are shipping containers. They're nice, they're mobile, they're nimble. They work really well in urban environments. And inside the walls are touchscreen and they come to life. We literally immerse the students in the learning, whether it's to provide an opportunity for quiz and assessments, augmented reality, game-based learning. It's this really cool movie theater inside of a shipping container. And those are the three types of labs we have.

Theresa Brady (06:30):

We asked Jen about her observations around the pandemic and education, particularly for STEM.

Jen Colvin (06:36):

Engaging with STEM learning and programming online was very hard. STEM investigations and learning, it's hands on and it's collaborative. We need other people to help us problem solve. In addition, many content areas that we learn are taught using manipulatives, for example, energy and matter in living systems. Students are used to learning about respiration and seeing that first hand, or taking a look at macromolecules and trying to determine the difference between the different types of sugars. So for our teachers, it was a pretty big hurdle to take all of their learning onto an online platform.

Jen Colvin (07:11):

Not only did they face every hurdle that everyone else was in terms of my curriculum is typically taught in person in a classroom and now I have teaching online, not only did they have to figure out how to help second graders figure out how to right mouse click to sign into something, but they also had to figure out how to take these content areas, which are typically taught through laboratory investigation, and be separated from their students. They can't tap in to what their students are learning every moment of that class. Their students can't work together, collaboratively. It was a big impact for STEM learning, in particular for us. And frankly, if a school system's digital content and instruction delivery is perceived to be boring or uninspiring by students, they let their teachers know because they are not engaged, there might be low attendance, there might be misbehavior. So I think that STEM education suffered a lot during the pandemic.

Theresa Brady (08:06):

That's difficult to hear, but there is a silver lining.

Jen Colvin (08:11):

But to be honest, we're in a really interesting spot, because what I've noticed is students have figured out how to learn online. It was maybe a painful process, it took us a long time to get there, but we suddenly have all these additional tools and ways to help our students available to us. Because we were able to figure out those virtual learning systems, because so many people put effort into digital STEM learning resources, now not only can I continue working with my students in person on my mobile laboratories, but I'm able to engage them with those STEM subject matters in whole bunches of new ways because that virtual room has opened up to us.

Theresa Brady (08:46):

The pandemic has been challenging, but it also created opportunities and gave us some brand new tools.

Jen Colvin (08:53):

Not only have our schools really built these robust ways to get virtual instruction across the board, they figured out how to engage their audiences, but it's really opened the opportunity for STEM education providers like myself. So the virtual learning platforms and the world of online learning allowed us to connect these STEM professionals to classrooms in ways they might not have considered before. We all knew that Zoom existed. We all had used Skype or other tools of varying degrees before. But suddenly, our students and our teachers had been practicing it for a whole school year. So now, we've got folks... The hurdle before was understanding the technology and using it, and that hurdle has been eliminated after virtual learning, so now we're able to connect with our classrooms directly.

Jen Colvin (09:40):

We're also able to allow our team who needs to be responsive to quarantine levels at a school or what the current virus transmission rates are, to still engage with a classroom, even if we've had to cancel a visit because the school's experiencing an outbreak, we have figured out is how to send science kits to those classrooms or loaner lab kits, or we'll even send at home science kits directly to students, so provide them with the tools and the resources that they need to still have authentic laboratory investigation. There's just a world of opportunity available to us now that we have actually harnessed the virtual learnings space.

Theresa Brady (10:17):

It was inspiring to learn that STEM education for K-12 students didn't completely suffer during the worst part of the pandemic. Kids can be so agile, and that's the beauty of our modern connected world. But we wanted to know if this adaptation was equal across the board. What about the students in underserved communities?

Theresa Brady (10:40):

When we come back from the break, we'll unpack the lack of access to STEM education for diverse populations. Have you been enjoying I am BIO so far? Please take a moment today to rate us, and better yet, write us a review on your favorite app. Share this podcast with someone to educate or inspire. All of this helps us reach a wider audience to share the good news about biotech breakthroughs.

Theresa Brady (11:19):

Unfortunately, education is not equitable. According to a Pew Research Center analysis from April, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other degree fields. They continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the adult population. When we were speaking to Jen, we asked how Learning Undefeated addresses some of this inequity.

Jen Colvin (11:42):

Learning Undefeated's long term goal has always been to increase access for students' underrepresented STEM careers, to the wide variety of career pathways and on-ramps available to them. That ultimately promotes and supports a diverse STEM workforce, because we think it's essential to what we do so that they can discover the STEM career opportunities available to them right in their hometown. Diversity's vital to progressing in the STEM fields, as it brings different insights and ideas to the table that would've otherwise not been considered. There are lots of ways to do this. How Learning Undefeated specifically does it first is we are deliberate about the populations we choose to work with. We will specifically choose schools that have a high number of the students we're trying to reach, or we will design programming specifically for them.

Jen Colvin (12:26):

The first example I'll give you is I've spent a lot of time working in Baltimore City Public Schools on purpose. They have a high number of the types of students that I'm trying to serve. So I go to their science department at Baltimore City Public Schools. I talk to them. We design programming that works for them and fits well within what other teachers are trying to do. In particular, we are focusing on young Black and Latino women. So not only do we recruit those students to participate in our programs, but I also recruit speakers and volunteers who reflect our students, the idea of giving them someone that they can identify with, someone who came from their community who might have shared experiences with them.

Speaker 6 (13:04):

Okay. This is five, 99, six, seven, eight, nine. Now, we need a takeaway. Three. Let's start for this hand. One, two, three.

Theresa Brady (13:28):

Last June, Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath had a conversation with Kimberly Bryant during our BIO Digital Convention. She's the founder and CEO of Black Girls Code. After several years as an electrical engineer at biotech companies like Genentech, Novartis, and Merck, Kimberly founded her nonprofit dedicated to fostering a love of coding for young Black girls.

Kimberly Bryant (13:50):

The things that I had learned in some of my early college years. And seeing at that time, my daughter, she is the geek in the family so to speak, but it was her interest in coding that led me back to exploring some of those seeds that have been planted in my college career, and that was the motivator for me in terms of finding this opportunity to create a space for girls like my daughter. So I relate to their experience from the standpoint of being a woman who spent most of her career in the male dominated side of the business as an engineer. But it was really her love of technology that brought me to do this work.

Theresa Brady (14:34):

Kimberly says she knew from her own career that the sciences were very male dominated. She didn't want her daughter, who was more reserved, to feel squeezed out.

Kimberly Bryant (14:45):

What I saw was that as she was really starting to get into gaming, and even in the very first summer clamps that I put her in, she would be in these rooms and these spaces surrounded by little boys and sometimes she would go into a shell. And I was like, "You know how to do that. Why don't you step up?" She did not feel comfortable always asserting herself and her skill sets and her abilities when she was put in these rooms where she was surrounded by little, rambunctious middle school boys. And I was like, "This is not good." Because I knew as a woman, who had been in an engineering field for all my career, that this could be her reality once she started her career. And just to be honest, from a mother's perspective, I did not want her to not pursue her passion because she didn't fit in, or she felt that she didn't. It was absolutely the only reason I even did the pilot of what Black Girls Code. It was for my daughter.

Theresa Brady (15:54):

She continues to find that many young girls entering the Black Girls Code program are the ones that shy away from the hand raising and assertiveness that gets them noticed by teachers. But once they're surrounded by girls just like them, they begin to blossom.

Kimberly Bryant (16:08):

It comes out that many of these girls are in accelerated programs at their schools. They feel isolation even, at very young ages. And the thing that I always find amazing within a Black Girls Code program is when they come into these spaces and find community, they blossom. And I see some of the most quiet girls who come into our program actually the ones who are the project leaders, or they're the ones that are making the presentations, or then they go out and do stuff in their schools, in their communities. And it really allows them, I think, by finding that safe place and community to discover skills and abilities that they may not even know they have, but really even take the things that they do know that they have and accelerate their influence and impact in the world.

Theresa Brady (17:03):

Kimberly finds that the earlier you spark interest in STEM, the better.

Kimberly Bryant (17:07):

When I think of some key learnings that we've found, one of the things that comes to mind top of mind from me is that early intervention matters. It matters. It really, really matters. I remember when we first started Black Girls Code, there were other kids coding programs out there, but a lot of them were just starting in high school. Or even when we were working with partners, they would start looking for engineers of color in high school, maybe even college. And if you focus your recruitment only at the end of the funnel, you may not be very successful. So I think it's important for employers, if you're really looking to build your pipeline with diverse talent, you have to start as early as you possibly can. So that means being able to look at programs like Black Girls Code, and now there are so many more, and really invest either your people talents and resources, or invest your tangible resources in supporting those programs.

Theresa Brady (18:10):

Many recognize that if we want women and people of color to pursue STEM education and careers, we have to be proactive. We don't want young women to be in the position that our next guest once found herself.

Jo Webber (18:27):

One of the things that's happened, I have a PhD in quantum physics many, many years ago, and we had a 21st Quantum Theory Conference at Oxford University. And when I got there, I saw there was another female, another woman. I was probably early twenties at the time. So I went running up to this lady and said, "Oh, thank goodness you are here. Where are studying?" And she said, "Oh, no, no, no, Jo. I'm the secretary." And then I realized it was just me. There was nobody there of color. There was no females in the audience. And I spent the next four or five days... In the evening, Oxford University put on a magic show for us and the first magician calls out, "I need a female volunteer." All the guys were laughing and I went out onto the stage and I spent the whole night there because six magicians all needed a female volunteer. And I think when you see that and you start to look at, "Huh. So if I stay in quantum physics, I'm really the only person that looks like this?" And I think there is a fair amount of that.

Theresa Brady (19:33):

This is Jo Webber.

Jo Webber (19:34):

I'm the CEO of STEMconnector. STEMconnector is probably the leading organization in the world focused on, and the keyword in our name is connecting, STEMconnector. We look at the whole STEM universe, whether it's corporations with an ongoing need for STEM talent and innovative thinkers, all the way through to K-12, post secondary colleges, two year, four year colleges, and also the various nonprofit organizations in the arena. Really, it's just an amalgamation, a grouping focusing on on STEM and the promotion of STEM talent and keeping interest amongst young people in STEM.

Theresa Brady (20:21):

STEMconnector also hosts a program called Million Women Mentors.

Jo Webber (20:25):

About seven years ago, we created a group called Million Women Mentors, and it's was to try and put together a million women mentoring relationships, really focusing on mentoring girls and women to encourage them to pursue, persist, and ultimately succeed in STEM careers. We did a study earlier this year on the state of diversity in STEM. And we know that whereas women make up 52% of the US population, only 29% of STEM jobs are held by women. So we can clearly see that women were underrepresented. This has actually not improved that much over the years as you'd hope. But one of our goals was to really try and put together mentorships to help these girls and women continue in STEM. And to date, we've achieved about 2.5 million mentoring relationships have taken place as part of the Million Women Mentors program around the world, mostly centered in the United States.

Theresa Brady (21:32):

We must change the perception that science, technology, engineering, and math are only for white men. As we've talked about on this podcast, the value of different perspectives cannot be understated. Diverse views lead to solutions that work better for everyone.

Jo Webber (21:48):

Well, I think it leads to excellence, and I think that's something we all need. I think when you look at some of the major innovations, it's not one person that has got this brilliant idea and it's all them. Science is a collaboration. Science is about problem solving and finding solutions. And we're a big, diverse planet here, and I think we can achieve excellence in scientific rigor when we have a more diverse group of people looking at these problems and helping solve them. Otherwise, you tend to maybe solve only for one set of the population.

Theresa Brady (22:28):

Jo shared a beautiful story about the power of early intervention and a single moment that can widen a child's imagination and help them see a life they never thought possible.

Jo Webber (22:41):

I think if you talk to a lot of adults who are in STEM careers, there was a fascinating one earlier this year. NASA, who is a STEMconnector member, we were talking to them, they just landed the Rover on Mars. They took this little Rover. It's something like 270 million miles to touchdown softly. Very, very impressive. When that happened, they wanted us to really talk a bit about, how can we really get this kind of thing in front of middle schoolers? And how can we particularly hit disadvantage youth who may not know about NASA or know about careers in NASA? Basically, we took these astronauts, put them in front of 10,000 school students of middle school age, middle and high school, some a little older, and it was just a brilliant exposure. And one of the female scientists who works on the backpack systems, she was like, "I hated math at school. I wanted to be a dancer."

Jo Webber (23:42):

And then she talked about something that happened in school and it was when she was middle to high school age, that really peaked her curiosity. And then from there, she found an internship at NASA and she's never looked back. We asked her, is she doing the best job in the world? And she doesn't want any other job. She's just so happy with what her job of is, but she would never have gone down that pathway had not... It was a professor who started to talk to her about the night sky and being able to see the different planets. So I think sparking that interest is so important. A friend of mine said recently, and it's so true, it takes a lot of time to be poor. And what he means by that is when people are disadvantaged, they're spending so much of their time just surviving that the opportunities that so many people take for granted, they don't see. And I think it's so critically important to reach those people, the people that their parents didn't go to college, their parents have got no knowledge of the types of opportunities that could exist.

Theresa Brady (24:52):

We closed out our conversation with Jo by asking how companies or individuals can help.

Jo Webber (24:57):

There's a number of different ways, and a number of our customers have actually been doing this over the years. So when you look at somebody like Walmart, one of the world's largest corporation, for sure, and you might think of them, because I think it's something like 90% of the US population lives within 30 miles of a Walmart. So they're like America's store. And you might think of them in that context, but they're running one of the biggest logistics operations on the planet, and their need for STEM talent and STEM innovation is huge. And really trying to take those examples, real world examples... You sit at school and you learn algebra and you're like, "Whoa, this means nothing to me." But starting to try and take some of the things that our corporations' challenges that they have to solve every day. Remember, STEM science is all about problem solving and really taking those into the schools through programs and programming and afterschool programming, I think, is just really essential.

Theresa Brady (26:01):

Children are our future, making it so important that we tell them today what they're capable of tomorrow. I want to extend a sincere thank you to all our guests on today's episode, and thank you, all, for the work you do. This episode was developed by me, the executive producer, Theresa Brady, and producers, Connor McCoy, Cornelia Poku, and Marilyn Sawyer. It was engineered and mixed by Jess Fenton, theme music created by Luke Smith and Sam Brady. On the next episode of I am BIO, we'll dig into antimicrobial resistance. It's a growing issue that needs much more attention from both the public and policy makers. We talk about what needs to be done to address it.

Listen to the entire episode here: