June 15, 2020
It was mid-March, and schools around the world were closing. By the end of the month, about nine out of every ten students on Earth would no longer be going to class in person in a collective effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As the University of British Columbia moved its courses online, Jakob Manning turned his mind to the future of Geering Up, the UBC Applied Science-based education organization he has led for over seven years. How could he and his team best deliver their STEM-themed programs to homebound kids and teens?
“Our goal is to get young people excited about science and engineering, and hands-on, real-life group activities play a big role in accomplishing that,” says Manning. “But of course modern technology allows you to reach your audience in different, yet potentially still very effective, ways.”
Drawing inspiration from a vast community of educators online, Geering Up spent the next several days adapting their workshops for remote consumption. The sessions needed to be engaging, of course. But they also had to be accessible to as many youths as possible, requiring nothing more than a basic Internet connection and everyday materials for home experiments.
On March 25, Geering Up hosted its first online offering: a YouTube Live session called “The Science of Implosions”, where instructor Sam Cheng took participants on an entertaining, interactive tour of the states of matter. The video and those that followed have been a success, attracting over 3,000 unique viewers and almost 14,000 views to date.
“I’m not sure the learning experience you get in physical labs and classrooms can be replicated online. But students have responded really positively to these virtual sessions,” says Cheng, a recent UBC grad who has spearheaded the transition to YouTube Live. “Actually, the feedback we’ve gotten has been so enthusiastic that we may keep on doing them even after our in-person workshops come back.”
Since the first video launched, Geering Up has provided daily Internet-based content to help youths from kindergarten to Grade 12 connect with STEM subjects — and fellow students — remotely. In addition to Geering Up Live, which has covered topics like bionics and engineering with newspapers, they have included weekend STEM clubs, homework clubs and “activity clubs” focused on science and coding.
These programs have supplied thousands of hours of virtual face-to-face learning to more than 550 students. And in the coming months, Geering Up will only grow, with more summer offerings planned than ever before. To support this expansion, the organization has hired 50 additional UBC undergraduate science and engineering students, many of whom saw their summer jobs vanish due to the pandemic.
A particular point of pride for Manning and his team is the fact that half of their attendees are female — just as it was in Geering Up’s in-person programs. It is a significant accomplishment in an area that continues to be predominantly male.
“Helping fill the gender gap in STEM fields is something we’re always trying to do,” says Manning. “Right now we’re developing a high school credit course that we hope will give students a better understanding of what it’s like to be an engineer. We’re also developing an online summer program for students in grades 10 and 11 who want to pursue independent studies in STEM.”
Another program Geering Up has successfully transitioned online is its popular professional development workshop for teachers, many of whom are looking for ways to integrate STEM activities into their virtual classrooms. Over one hundred have signed up for the free weekly Zoom sessions so far.
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on young people’s academic and social lives will not be understood for many years. But by continuing their work during these troubled times, organizations like Geering Up are giving us all much-needed hope for the future.
“A lot has changed during the pandemic, but the community need we serve is constant,” says Manning. “Kids are still looking for opportunities to be creative and make friends, and we will continue to be there to support families however we can.”