3 unexpected benefits of virtual learning

Two STEM-focused summer camps were reimagined this past summer and now provide strategies that schools can adapt to their own virtual learning strategies.
By: | November 20, 2020
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Crystal Lovelady is Workforce Development Manager at Shell Social Investment.

Crystal Lovelady is Workforce Development Manager at Shell Oil Company.

As many teachers can attest, engaging students and ensuring that the material shared actually resonates can be a challenge even at the best of times. Now in 2020, teachers are faced with the relentless task of imparting knowledge via virtual channels, without the advantage of being in the same room to hold students’ attention. This has led to a general belief that virtual learning cannot begin to replicate the emotional responses that students typically receive from live interactions with peers and teachers; virtual learning can be categorized as a distant and uninviting experience.

Beyond both students’ and teachers’ negative experiences, a common complaint is that virtual learning exacerbates the education gap – the socioeconomic and technological divide between students as it pertains to the accessibility of education. However, many do not realize that when done well, virtual learning can bring unexpected benefits and re-shape the future of education. In fact, two annual STEM-focused summer camps: Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp, had been reimagined this past summer to support a virtual model. Both camps exceeded expectations and now provide applicable strategies that schools can adapt to their own virtual learning strategies.

A kit-based model bridges the digital divide  

Although the importance of STEM learning has been widely acknowledged, for many there are still quite a few barriers starting with limited access to the necessary education exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. After all, for more traditionally hands-on subjects like science, it is hard to engage students and impart the necessary knowledge through a lecture alone. Therefore, a kit-based teaching model can be highly effective for these types of subjects since students will be able to replicate relevant science experiments at home. By creating a package of the necessary experiment materials for each student, teachers can bring an element of interactivity to the lesson and fully engage students.

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Seeing this systemic issue in STEM education, Shell Oil Company launched the Energy Venture Camp in 2015 and has been supporting Energy Camps for as long as 15 years to foster interest in the STEM subjects within middle and high school students, especially in underserved communities. Notably, almost 50 percent of this year’s camp participants identified as underserved, under-represented, and at-risk. Yet, ASTRO Camp TO GO had the highest number of registered summer camp users online at once, of any ZOOM camp during the summer of 2020 with a single day peak of 365 unique logins.

Opportunities for increased diversity and inclusion

Virtual learning can be a highly equitable avenue, especially for those with special needs. In a traditional learning environment, it would be difficult or even impossible for a special needs learner to participate in certain educational and recreational endeavors. However, through virtual learning, those students can now partake in those learning experiences from home with the support and comfort that relatives and caregivers often provide.

In fact, the 72 special needs campers in grades K-12 at Astro Camp TO GO not only attended – but finished the full week – leading to a 100 percent completion rate.

Virtual guest speakers expand the scope of lessons

Through virtual learning, teachers from different schools can now work together to secure prominent guest speakers and have all of their students attend the lesson at once – broadening the scope of lessons. While this would not have been possible in the past due to physical restraints, schools and teachers are no longer limited by physical logistics like space or transportation, opening the doors to myriad new teaching methods and the possibility for unprecedented levels of collaboration.

In fact, this method proved highly successful during Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp, where Shell and other sponsors were able to teach students about future career opportunities in STEM and share real-world examples. Stemming from these guest appearances, 99 percent of participants “consider [themselves] better at STEM.” Additionally, 88 percent of those who attended ASTRO Camp are now “considering a career in STEM,” up from the pre-camp statistic of 57 percent.

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At a time when many schools are considering re-closing due to a rising second wave, a more open-minded approach should be considered for virtual learning. Like any other teaching method, virtual learning has benefits in addition to downsides. Quite possibly though, schools and teachers may need to continue leveraging this method for the remainder of this school year and beyond. Therefore, for virtual learning to truly be effective and a viable strategy, it will take cooperative and creative thinking from both the administration and teachers. After all, although unexpected, the virtual models of Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp prove that these strategies can have a positive impact when put into action.

Crystal Lovelady is a member of Shell’s Workforce Development / Diversity Outreach Team. She is responsible for Shell’s Associate & Technical Scholarship, Dual Credit and 2-year STEM career programs and manages more than 20 community college partnerships across the U.S.

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