Supporting STEM learners with online learning during the pandemic

Woman taking online course on a computer

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many schools moved classes online, teachers rapidly had to adjust to remote instruction. One of the biggest challenges for high school science teachers has been finding ways to transfer labs to a virtual space.

Recognizing that educators need extra resources during this challenging time, Dow has engaged on many fronts to support virtual learning. The most recent example is providing financial support toward the expansion of free chemistry learning resources – including virtual labs, tutorials and simulations – to high school teachers and students through Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI). Since March 2020, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been offering free introductory general chemistry courses through its OLI platform. The grant will help those courses remain free throughout the academic year and provide enhanced resources to reach a larger and more diverse group of students and teachers.

“Dow is committed to the promotion of STEM education and creating equitable opportunities for students,” said Dave Parrillo, vice president of R&D at Dow and an executive sponsor to CMU. “Teachers and students need innovative options for advanced chemistry courses at the high school level during the pandemic, and we are excited to be able to bring CMU’s resources to those who may not otherwise have had access.”

Taking chemistry labs online

Typically, a lot of learning in chemistry is hands-on. Students often are inspired and learn problem-solving skills in laboratory environments where they see firsthand the transformations that can occur when they follow an experiment. But how do teachers effectively make the leap and transfer real-world learning to a virtual world?

When the pandemic hit, CMU Chemistry Professor David Yaron knew he could provide answers. Since 2000, he and his colleagues have run the ChemCollective, a collection of virtual labs, simulations and tutorials. In 2019, ChemCollective resources were incorporated into full courses, Chemistry 1 and 2, on CMU’s OLI platform. The courses include built-in tools to help teachers make sure their students understand the concepts they are teaching.

“With additional funding, we can provide more resources by moving more virtual lab activities to our ChemCollective site on OLI, which is a much more stable platform,” Yaron said.

A key to virtual lab activities is to challenge students to think critically about the chemistry that is involved. For example, one of CMU’s virtual labs asks students to predict the solubility of copper chloride at different temperatures then test their predictions by creating the solution on their screens. By generating their own data, students must think about the relationship between solubility and temperature.

“Our activities have been designed, tested and refined over the past 20 years to enable students to reason like scientists, understand connections between chemistry and their lives, and apply their knowledge to design and interpret experiments, even when physical labs are not available,” Yaron said.

Expanding access to STEM learners

Since March 2020, more than 3,500 new students have enrolled in the OLI chemistry courses. This semester, there are 140 class sections taught by 87 teachers. The courses have provided a much-needed resource for teachers who have had to rapidly adjust to new ways of instructing students.

While the sudden move to virtual instruction created an immediate and urgent need, virtual STEM resources such as CMU’s chemistry courses can continue to help significantly enhance science teaching and learning – even after the pandemic. In fact, the National Science Teachers Association supports and encourages the use of e-learning experiences for science students, as well as for science educators engaging in professional learning in the traditional, informal, or online learning environment.

“We’re committed to providing diverse learners with equitable access to high-quality STEM courses and learning experiences,” said Parrillo. “By supporting the development of high-quality, affordable and accessible resources such as CMU’s online chemistry courses, we can help students become better at learning and educators become better at teaching.”

Learn more about how Dow is investing in future by equipping students with the STEM skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.