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Virtual summer programs prepare students for future scientific workforce

Call it a test run for the future.

When the annual ARC/ORNL High School Summer Math-Science-Technology Institute and the ARC/ORAU Middle School Summer Science Academy successfully transitioned from in-person to virtual events, participating students got a taste of what the work world might look like when they get there.

“These students could be working virtually for extended periods of time,” said Jennifer Tyrell, ORAU manager for K-12 programs. “It’s perfectly feasible that these middle school and high school students will get jobs where they work from home. Now they know how to do some of the things they didn’t know before. They’re better at communicating virtually. We taught them soft skills like how to present a good appearance on Zoom, how to prepare for an interview and how to stand up and give a speech.”

Virtual summer programs prepare students for future scientific workforce

In addition, every student received a laptop to ensure they had the technology necessary to participate in the program.

“Thanks to the ARC, the students get to keep the computers so they will have the capability to participate should they have to do virtual learning in the future,” Tyrell said.

The two-week high school program is sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and ORAU. The middle-school program is sponsored by ARC and ORAU. Participating students and teachers from 13 Appalachian states are nominated by their state’s governor and selected based on their potential to excel in math and science and continue on in higher learning.

This year, 39 high school students, 17 high school teachers and 32 middle school students were selected.

High school students and teachers participated in virtual research projects led by ORNL scientists and mentors. Teams of students investigated 3D printing, robotics systems, spatial analysis, climate science and physics modeling. The teachers focused on chemical sciences, plant growth and cytogenetic biodosimetry. Middle school students, led by master teachers, investigated 3D printing technology, coding micro:bits and computer science.

Students and teachers spent each day in a virtual setting working with their mentors on projects and developed presentations they delivered on the final day of the program. Even though everyone would have liked the in-person experience of traveling to Oak Ridge from their respective states, participants were able to have a meaningful research experience in the virtual setting.

Virtual summer programs prepare students for future scientific workforce

“When it became clear that the COVID crisis would make it inadvisable to run the Summer STEM program in the usual way, ORAU did not miss a beat in redesigning a strong alternative curriculum," said Wendy Wasserman, ARC Communications Director. “The result was a valuable experience for Appalachia’s participating teachers and students, and a testament to our ongoing partnership.” 

Once the decision was made to pivot, the K-12 team had six weeks to make the transition from the traditional, in-person program to the virtual environment, said Chris Nelson, ORAU K-12 project manager, who manages the ARC program.

In addition to the K-12 team, the program involved 11 mentors, five instructional technologists, a technology coordinator, six middle school teachers and five facilitators.

“Everyone, from mentors to the teachers we hired to be instructional technologists, was completely willing to do everything that they could to pivot the program from an in-person to a virtual experience,” Tyrell said. “We could not have done it without all of those subcontractors who shared their ideas and worked hard and learned new skills.”

The subcontractors learned new technology and new platforms. They also took part in training sessions offered by the technology coordinator to learn how to use Zoom and Google Classroom to create these virtual environments for research.

“All this effort on the part of ORAU and our subcontractors was well worth it in the end because the students and the teachers who participated had a fabulous experience,” Tyrell said. “And the work that the students and teachers put in is evident in their final projects.”

Students and teachers alike got a lot out of their two weeks.

“I have learned more over these two weeks than I have in any of my science classes, said Abigail Shaffer, an 11th grader at Cortland Junior/Senior High School in Cortland, N.Y.

Similar sentiments were expressed Lauren Gottlieb, a 7th grader at Hayesville Middle School in Hayesville, N.C. “The best part of the program was that I was able to gain skills in something I would have never tried before,” she said.

One of the teachers, Randall Dunkin, who teaches general biology and environmental sciences at North Adam High School in Seaman, Ohio, said:  “I have already recommended this program to our newer science faculty, and told them that they would be hard pressed to find another program of high quality to match what this program offers to science teachers.”

Nelson said some of the participants were outside of their comfort zone in the virtual environment because they come from economically depressed regions of the country, where technology in schools is not as readily available. Their schools didn’t have the capability to transition to virtual learning when coronavirus protection measures went into place in the spring. They simply shut down.

That’s why sending each student a laptop was important. They also received a shipment filled with all of the research supplies they needed. Mentors sent Nelson lists of everything the participants would need. He is grateful to ORAU’s facilities team for allowing the K-12 staff set up a staging area where they packed more than 100 different shipments for students and teachers across Appalachia.

“We needed to make sure they had everything they needed to be able to fully participate in the projects they would be working on,” Nelson said.

Tyrell said she was concerned that students would miss out on the social connections and the networking they would get by being in Oak Ridge, but students still made that happen in the virtual space. Groups of students got together after hours to play Minecraft, Dungeons and Dragons and video games. At lunchtime, a Zoom room was opened where students could gather to talk with each other. One group of middle school students picked up their instruments and held a virtual jam session.

Even though not meeting in person meant participants missed out on tours of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg and other regional locales, they still got to experience virtual field trips.

“We weren’t limited by geography, so we took them to the National Aquarium in Maryland, we took them to Yosemite National Park and we took them to Mars,” Tyrell said. The Mars tour was particularly beneficial for students because the tour incorporated Scratch, a type of coding software, so students could create their own Mars game.

In addition to the tours, students heard from several guest speakers, including Elizabeth Rose, an Appalachian storyteller; Chic Thompson, creator of WagiLabs, which helps kids ages 8–11 develop ideas that do good for people, animals and the environment; and several scientists. 

“There was value in transitioning to the virtual environment,” Nelson said. “We were able to provide a program as close to the in-person experience as we possibly could.”

And now those students are better equipped to navigate the future, no matter what it holds.