Educators share success at transforming a summer STEM program

Columbus, Ohio
Jan 31, 2022

For more than 20 years, the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) has been sponsoring the Young Women’s Summer Institute (YWSI) to engage Ohio’s middle school students in STEM education topics. Although the Center had planned to offer the week-long event in person in 2021, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prompted a pivot to an online format.

Event organizers hoped that the new virtual lessons could illustrate scientific concepts while creating a sense of community for the participants, said Katharine Cahill, education and training specialist for OSC. The science teachers who provide YWSI instruction were instrumental in creating the online program, Cahill said.

“The main goal was to see how we could teach the topics that we had always been teaching—watersheds and water quality—to students without having them spend a day by the river,” said Joanne Baltazar Vakil, one of the teachers involved in transitioning the traditional, residential summer program to a virtual format. “How do you mimic that when everyone is in front of the computer? How do you make it engaging and enjoyable?”

YWSI assigned hands-on experiments for students to complete and share virtually. The program also incorporated various online tools for discussion and interaction.

“We want to give the students opportunities—especially in summer when they are isolated from others—to be really able to have these conversations with other students,” Vakil said.

Event organizers consider the 2021 virtual YWSI a success, and OSC plans to continue to offer virtual programming even when the annual event returns to an in-person format.

“It was good to see that we were able to pull this together and show that the students were engaged,” Cahill said. “We had good retention over the week and we were able to really give them some interesting activities and takeaways—even though we couldn’t do it in person. The students had a positive experience overall.”

Vakil, a research specialist at The Ohio State University College of Medicine who has 18 years of K-12 teaching experience, designed a study to document the effectiveness of the new virtual format. She surveyed or interviewed students, teachers and parents about their experiences and outcomes with the 2021 online program.

Vakil and Cahill were invited to share initial findings from that study at the 2022 Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE) International Conference in early January. They also will present at the annual Ohio Educational Technology Conference (OETC) in mid-February.

“Overall we wanted to share how we as teachers were able to put this all together in just over two months—how we were able to redesign this so quickly,” Vakil said. “It’s a program design that we’d like to share to make it easier for others to do something similar.”

The findings could be relevant to those who organize summer camps, after-school programs or museum activities. In addition, Vakil and Cahill are interested in hearing from colleagues in the educational field about other exercises or opportunities to teach students about water issues virtually.

While the team is still collecting and analyzing data, the winter conference presentations focus on the first round of results from the surveys and conversations with teachers and students.

All of the teachers—many of whom are repeat participants in YWSI—agreed that the planning process for the virtual event was productive and that they could provide input, Vakil said. They also now are more likely to use online tools in the in-person classes they teach during the school year. In future YWSI programs, the teachers would like to take a closer look at the time needed for certain virtual activities to ensure smooth delivery of the lessons.

Initial results from the students showed that they found the experiments, games and science vocabulary lessons to be interesting and informative, and that they enjoyed talking with other students. Students provided constructive feedback on how to improve some elements of the online games and participant interactions, Vakil reported.

Katie Chalker, a middle school student from Hilliard, participated in YWSI for the first time in 2021. During a year when the COVID pandemic hampered many typical summer break activities, Chalker was enthusiastic about an opportunity to attend the virtual institute and connect with others from around the state.

“It was incredible how much we fit in during that amount of time,” she said about the week-long event.

YWSI's curriculum had synergies with what Chalker had learned during her 7th grade science classes, and she enjoyed the hands-on activities she could complete at home. An exercise with a crumpled piece of paper, marker and water demonstrated the science of water flow, which students could display and discuss online. Teachers also used real-world examples of watersheds that students might have in their own backyards.

“It was all focused on Ohio, so it was easy to connect with the material,” Chalker said.

During the next phase of Vakil and Cahill’s study, the team will focus on identifying the impact of the virtual YWSI program on students’ interest in science and mathematics.

The overall study findings will inform how OSC approaches YWSI in 2022 and in future years, Cahill said. The Center would like to expand the audience for the programming beyond the 15 to 20 young women the event typically accommodates. Vakil also hopes that the program can enroll more students from rural areas of Ohio, as well as the major cities.

“Our education goals are always to innovate and expand our educational programs to make them more impactful for students around the state,” Cahill said.

About OSC: The Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) addresses the rising computational demands of academic and industrial research communities by providing a robust shared infrastructure and proven expertise in advanced modeling, simulation and analysis. OSC empowers scientists with the services essential to making extraordinary discoveries and innovations, partners with businesses and industry to leverage computational science as a competitive force in the global knowledge economy and leads efforts to equip the workforce with the key technology skills required for 21st century jobs.