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From the STEM field: An innovative model to deliver STEM learning to under-served youth during the COVID-19 era

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From the STEM field: An innovative model to deliver STEM learning to under-served youth during the COVID-19 era

By Stephen White, Vice President of External Affairs, Strategic Initiatives, and Business Development and Allie Greiwe, Director of External Affairs at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, OH. This blog is a continuation of our series of case studies examining how informal STEM leaders have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue serving students with STEM activities, and what lessons we can apply to the future of STEM learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a paradigm shift in how we deliver education, as it continues to pose the threat of leaving the vulnerable and underserved community disproportionately behind.  Inequitable access to the internet, food, and other services create significant barriers to remote learning for underserved communities (School-system priorities in the age of coronavirus, McKinsey & Company, 2020).  Now more than ever, there is a clear need for accessible, high-quality science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning to keep minds engaged, ensure educational needs are met (including those in rural and urban communities), and provide pathways to STEM careers.  This need is exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have a prolonged impact on formal and non-formal learning.

Providing Distance Learning

To help address these challenges head-on, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) partnered with the Ohio Afterschool Network (OAN) on an unprecedented, innovative distance learning initiative called COSI Connects (http://cosi.org/connects/). This free, fun, and comprehensive digital doorway provides critically needed science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) content and experiences through the use of videos, documents, and hands-on science that all Ohio residents can utilize. Our partnership-based initiative equips Ohioans with daily learning activities, assists Ohio educators with resources to amplify their curriculum, and enables Ohio families to pursue exciting educational experiences together while supporting workforce development for in-demand career pathways. Together, this project helps us meet the need for non-traditional learning infrastructure and serve Ohio communities, especially catering to the under-served and under-represented STEM populations.

Specifically, the COSI Connects ecosystem offers daily and weekly digital activities, which include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Daily lesson plans and activities for engaging, hands-on and minds-on content using readily available materials found at home;
  • Daily video resources from COSI experts, educators, and content partners;
  • Science challenges;
  • Citizen science projects;
  • Social media STEM assessments;
  • Virtual, 360-degree tours of select COSI exhibitions; and
  • A “teach back” initiative that enables youth to share what they have learned through social media.

The COSI Connects Website

Activating and a Vital Statewide Afterschool Network

Utilizing the strong partner network of the Ohio Afterschool Network, the COSI Connects platform delivered tools to enhance educators’ curricula during the new era of distance learning. In just over five months (beginning in March 2020), the COSI Connects web portal experienced over 75,000+ views and users, from throughout the Midwest and beyond.  As the need for the remote-learning experiences grew, we scaled up our offerings: the OAN featured COSI Connects under its “STEM Resources” webpage section; OAN held weekly “Community Conversation Calls” in which the COSI team provided educators with a preview of upcoming content; and COSI presented at the 2020 “Off to a Great Start Conference” hosted by the OAN. Focusing on “internet deserts” and the digital divide, COSI gave an overview of free and accessible resources for formal and non-formal educators to utilize.

Addressing the Digital Divide

Moreover, COSI developed a COSI Connects mobile application, enabling users to download STEM content to their mobile devices while visiting a free Wi-Fi community hotspot location. The OAN helped promote COSI Connects resources, the mobile application, and free hotpot locations throughout Ohio – with many hotspot locations being OAN sites. The mobile application’s offline download feature enabled students to view COSI Connects content from their home, even without the internet. As low-income U.S. teenagers rely disproportionately on smart phones for internet access, the accessibility offered in the COSI mobile application and through the OAN network was critical in reaching underserved populations (Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, Pew Research Center).

The COSI Connects App with offline capabilities

Feeding Hungry Lives and Feeding Hungry Minds

Although the COSI Connects ecosystem offered a plethora of digital resources with and for the OAN community, COSI recognized that these digital tools were not enough to serve those youth who were struggling as a result of the digital divide.  Thus, COSI created a new type of “physical”, hands-on STEM kit called the “COSI Connects Learning Lunchbox,” serving those who do not have access to digital infrastructure and resources. The Learning Lunchboxes are filled with five days of activities targeted for grades K-12 and center on different themes like water, nature, space, and more.  The kits are served alongside meal distribution partners and foodbanks in a socially distant manner to help feed hungry lives, and feed hungry minds.  Through the power of partnerships, we were able to distribute thousands of these boxes throughout the state and serve many OAN member sites.  COSI will be working closely with OAN network to identify locations across Ohio to distribute these kits at OAN locations in 2021, inspiring countless underserved youth around STEM.

Allie Greiwe and Stephen White distributing Learning Lunchboxes to underserved youth during summer

Our partnership-driven model shows that, together, we can serve our communities – and especially those in need – during and beyond a pandemic. This collaboration enhanced and enabled distance learning, while also providing a resource framework for educators that are developing techniques during a digital divide. Moreover, we demonstrated that science and education serve as a great equalizer during this time of public health crisis and re-awakening of societal inequities. The COSI Connects initiative embodies the premise that we are all in this together, and together we can engage, inspire, and transform.

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