There was a lot to be excited about. A trip to partner with teachers in Uganda. Promoting an upcoming speaker series. Planning a water workshop. Prepping for professional development sessions. But in mid-March, with fears growing over the coronavirus, the pause button was pressed on normal life, halting everyday activities, shuttering offices and closing schools. The Institute for School Partnership at Washington University worked quickly to adapt and transform its operations, moving everything online.
“Right away we began assessing how to help the immediate needs of school neighbors,” said ISP executive director Victoria L. May. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to help in five days, 5 weeks and 5 months?’” Even if it’s a short term fix, we wanted to be strategic about it.’” She added, “Despite our physical distance, partnership remains in our name.”
The ISP works with a diverse population of K-12 schools and students. And these partner schools approached remote learning in very different ways. A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work. While some families in school districts have an abundance of resources others lack basic technology. The ISP’s response took into account that uneven landscape.
“At the forefront of our response is always the human connection,” May said.
Many emails, calls and virtual meetings later a plan took shape. ISP instructional specialists reached out directly to high needs schools in order to listen, advise, and assess their needs.
Immediate help came in the form of providing ISP vetted online resources and easing the burden by helping teachers with routine tasks. These same specialists instituted virtual office hours for teachers to ask questions, share needs and ideas, or just commiserate.
On a Tuesday morning in April, faces started populating the squares on the virtual Zoom meeting. In all, nearly 40 kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers from the Hillsboro School District joined ISP instructional specialists Melanie Turnage and Tori Engel for this first virtual professional development session.
The ISP customized its professional development offerings to meet district specific needs. This particular session was specifically designed for Hillsboro. There were lots of questions; How do we teach kids at home without materials? How do I teach this remotely without overwhelming parents?
Turn age’s advice to the group – give yourself time to figure out how this will work and what it will look like.
Bridging The Digital Divide
Looking for ways to keep STEM learning going for the tens of thousands of homebound students in St. Louis City and St. Louis County with limited or no access to technology, the ISP got creative, coming up with several offline instruction options. It partnered with The Little Bit Foundation to develop and distribute STEM Challenges for students and families participating in school-based drive-thru meal service programs. The Little Bit Foundation partners with schools where 90% to 100% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Since 2018, ISP and TLBF have collaborated to offer project-based STEM learning to the classroom through its mySci Do programming.
“We recognize that there are wide swaths of the region where students have limited or no access to technology. We knew we needed to come up with an offline option to keep these students engaged,” said May. “We are thrilled to partner with a local foundation to address this problem and offer these activities that can be done throughout the summer.”
The initial distributions occurred on Monday, May 4 and Monday, 18. New STEM Challenge kits will be distributed every two weeks. Additional kit deliveries will occur on June 1 and June 16. So far, The Little Bit Foundation has delivered 1,000 STEM kits with instructions to families via their food distribution locations. Students that complete their STEM activity can join an online challenge and win prizes.
In addition, the ISP has partnered with Nine Network (KETC/Channel 9) to provide weekly science lessons. “Teaching in Room 9, Science” launched on Friday, May 15 and will air every Friday from 1:30pm to 2:30pm for the next 12 weeks. This science programming complements two hours of math and literacy instruction that began airing during weekdays last month and is taught by local educators. Nine Network’s STEM programming is for students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grades.
“This new partnership between the ISP and Channel 9 furthers our mission to bring the resources of the university to the community in meaningful and impactful ways,” May said.
Leading the science programming are ISP instructional specialist Melanie Turnage and Chris Frills, principal of KIPP Wonder Academy. The pair provide two 30 minute science segments. Frills is targeted at students in pre-K to 1st grade, While Turnage is teaching to students in 2nd to fourth grades.
The curriculum is purposefully low-tech, with Turnage and Frills presenting concepts, reading books and demonstrating experiments.
The Science Behind The Outbreak
What is going on and why? So far, COVID-19 is the most significant public health emergency of the 21st century and students have questions about the pandemic in real time. Recognizing this hunger for knowledge, ISP Lead Instructional Specialist Heather Milo and Mary Buckendorf, middle school science teacher at Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, worked quickly to create COVID-19 instructional materials for middle school students. The mini-module for grades 6-8 explores the question: How do we keep ourselves and others safe and informed during the coronavirus pandemic?
Milo has been working with Buckendorf all school year on her goal on scientific writing. That teamwork easily led to this recent collaboration.
“What better subject is there to focus on than the pandemic?” asked Milo.
The materials are free to the public. Locally, both KIPP middle schools (KIPP Inspire and KIPP Triumph) are also using it.
Even before the current sheltering in place situation, the ISP was adapting its mySci science curriculum lessons for online learning and creating additional online teaching resources. In fact, ISP’s innovative mySci curriculum houses a myriad of materials online. The coronavirus outbreak hastened that timeline for new online material and in particular these STEM learning units for distance learning.
As teachers pivoted to teaching online for the first time, the ISP wanted to ensure that they had access to high-quality lessons – and not just teachers that work with the Institute for School Partnership, but all teachers everywhere. Very soon, the ISP adapted its mySci Unit 25: Science in St. Louis for remote learning making it more accessible for a larger age range (Grades 3-8). This material, Science in St. Louis, is now freely accessible by the public at the ISP website.
“We want to make sure that as many teachers and students as possible have access to this high-quality virtual instruction that is standards aligned,” May said.
Always publicly available have been mySci Module 5 materials for grades 6-8, and mySci Unit 21 materials for 5th grade. In fact, Unit 21 earned the Next Generation Science Standards Design Badge from Achieve – the organization behind the new science standards. The Badge is awarded to science units that meet its highest criteria.
As the ISP moves forward each new day brings new changes, new challenges and the potential for new opportunities.
“We are working with our partners – not to just get them through the 19-20 school year, but to next year and the year after,” May said.
Will schools reopen in the fall? Will students and teachers be back in the classroom? Will it be a hybrid of in-person and remote learning? The only certainty right now is the uncertainty. With that knowledge, the ISP continues to move forward, developing and sharing resources that support inquiry-based STEM teaching and learning.
While no one knows what will happen in the months ahead. One thing is clear. This global pandemic underscores the importance of STEM literacy and STEM skills. Those 21st century skills – critical thinking, communication, facts and data – are crucial as students navigate all of the uncertainties they are facing.
May 19, 2020 | by, Myra Lopez