Families rely on summer programs to provide enriching experiences, a supportive community, and to address gaps in learning. Due to social distancing constraints during the summer of 2020, youth faced months of unfocused, unstructured time during which it was expected that learning gaps would expand between those whose families were able to provide alternative enriching activities and those whose families could not. This virtual summer program was intended to provide youth with a quality learning environment that they would not otherwise have.
In July 2020, the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning facilitated a 4-week virtual summer program with twenty-seven girls enrolled in the Girls Inc. Eureka! STEM program in Worcester, Massachusetts. The foundation of the program was DIY Universe, a web-based program developed by the McAuliffe Center for implementation at Out-of-School Time (OST) sites. This program was offered at no cost to participants.
One of the OST partner organizations, Girls Inc. of Worcester, typically offers an intensive summer component, where 8th and 9th graders spend 4 weeks on college campuses and participate in activities such as women in STEM career panels, financial literacy workshops, and health/wellness programming. Girls Inc. discontinued all in-person operations on March 13, 2020, per state health and safety restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This measure was extended into the summer and led to the cancellation of the in-person summer program. Through a collaboration with Girls Inc, the McAuliffe Center was able to offer 18 hours of hands-on, STEM-focused college and career programming, plus additional opportunities for asynchronous exploration
Twenty-seven girls participated in the Girls Inc. Eureka Summer Program. The participants attended 90-minute virtual sessions facilitated by the McAuliffe Center staff 3 times per week for a total of 18 hours. Due to the unusual and rapidly changing circumstances, Girls Inc. did not impose a mandatory attendance policy for participants. All 27 participants attended at least one session; over a quarter of the girls (26%) attended all 12 sessions. In addition to the weekly sessions facilitated by the McAuliffe Center, Girls Inc. offered assistance outside of program sessions, in the form of virtual office hours. During program sessions, participants were guided through the activities and resources of the DIY Universe Life Cycle of Stars Program. Some days, participants were guided through a self-directed exploration of resources. Other days, participants joined interactive multimedia presentations led by McAuliffe Center staff or virtual talks presented by outside subject-matter experts. One of the major activities involved the use of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory MicroObservatory, which allowed participants to remotely control robotic telescopes in order to capture images of astronomical objects and process them using web-based software. Finally, the participants created and presented virtual exhibits which included their MicroObservatory images.
Participants provided feedback through surveys and interviews conducted by the Goodman Research Group. Comments from participants included: “This program teaches you skills you need to know to survive in the society. For example, we learned teamwork, communication and presentation skills”. Program facilitators all indicated that the participants’ level of technological competency with virtual collaboration platforms and other technology was lower than we had expected. Therefore, it can be concluded that one concrete outcome of the 4-week virtual summer program was increased awareness and competency in remote collaborative environments. Participants gained more awareness of the technical tools and the teamwork and communication skills required to effectively collaborate in a remote environment.
NASA’s Universe of Learning Program provided partial funding for this project as part of the collaboration between Framingham State University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.