After logging into the video conferencing site Google Classroom, TaShara Bailey, PhD, MA, the STEM curriculum director and director of programs for the UMB CURE Scholars Program, smiled into her web camera and said, “OK, scholars, let’s turn on our cameras so we can say ‘hello.’ ” And with that, her computer screen lit up with video boxes showing the faces of several dozen middle school students ready for a day of virtual summer fun.
This was the new normal for the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) CURE Scholars who normally spend the summer on UMB’s campus learning through hands-on experiments in professional laboratories. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a stop to many summer camps and activities, the CURE Scholars had to move their usual summer of STEM to a virtual platform.
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The UMB CURE Scholars Program is a mentoring program funded by the National Cancer Institute. The institute’s focus is on reducing racial disparities in the biomedical health care and research workforce by introducing a pipeline toward careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to students in West Baltimore. The program begins in sixth grade and continues through high school, college, and beyond.
Moving the entire three-week summer curriculum to a virtual platform was not an easy task, but the CURE team of instructors and paraeducators found a way to turn online learning into an interactive and fun experience.
“The scholars were really excited to use a new integrated form of learning,” said Sonya Dixon, MS, a seventh-grade teacher at Green Street Academy and the lead classroom monitor for CURE’s summer programming. “As we all transition into a new virtual normal there will be challenges that you encounter, most of them involve technology management, but through research and teamwork, we can resolve those issues easily.”
The team of instructors for CURE’s summer programming was made up of faculty and staff from UMB as well as CURE’s three partner schools, Green Street Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, and Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School. The team included Dixon; Ann Marie Felauer, DNP, RN, CPNP-AC/PC, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing and director of the Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Specialty - Acute and Primary Care; Hester Johnson, a paraeducator at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School; Debrah Mitzel, a teacher at Green Street Academy; Barrington Moore, MSEd, CURE’s STEM Expo coordinator; and Madeline Nuñez, MEd, a sixth-grade science teacher at Green Street Academy.
The curriculum included daily speakers and presentations about STEM topics including pharmacy, biology, and dentistry. The scholars also participated in scavenger hunts and experiments that they could perform in their own homes thanks to the CURE STEM kits delivered to each of them prior to the start of summer programming.
“I am more than excited to support students and their families during this time,” said Shareen Aarons, a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School who helped deliver the STEM kits to each of the scholars. “It felt great knowing that I could be a part of making sure the scholars received the items they needed, and I will continue to support them as we continue virtual learning in the fall.”
Each kit contained everything that would allow them to be productive and enjoy their summer safely at home including school supplies, an art kit, a specialized science kit, a book for summer reading, a meter stick, a jump rope, and skull models to help them learn about anatomy and physiology. And as a fun surprise for the scholars, the kits also included summertime snacks that they could enjoy during programming.
“The kits allowed us to simulate the experience of doing labs in person,” said Raquel Shortt, a student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy who led several virtual activities. “We were still able to work through each type of project, troubleshoot when we ran into issues, and show off our cool results. Overall, we were able to keep the scholars active and directly involved and immersed in their lessons.”
Experimenting with STEM at Home
The scholars were able to do several virtual experiments with their STEM kits such as making slime with borax, using balloons to learn about asthma, and putting together a model skull. A CURE instructor would give directions and the scholars would follow along from their computers at home.
“I do have mixed emotions [about everything being virtual] because I'm sad that we can't go to school and CURE,” said Shayla Monroe, a rising seventh-grade student at Southwest Baltimore Charter School. “But at the end of the day, I am happy because that means everyone can be safe.”
Shayla is a scholar in Cohort 5 and has dreams of becoming a pediatrician when she grows up. She says she felt encouraged to pursue that dream by the guest speakers she met during this summer’s Lunch and Learn speaker series. This series invited medical professionals and researchers to join the CURE Scholars for lunch three times a week, so they could answer questions about what it takes to succeed in their fields.
“I feel very inspired listening to the nurses and doctors talk about their jobs and experiences,” Shayla said. “The way they describe their jobs is really interesting and it got me thinking that if they can do it, maybe I can too.”
During the second week of summer programming, the CURE Scholars partnered with the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) to participate in a virtual version of the Planet Smilez program. The program teaches the scholars about oral health and hygiene through presentations, activities, and experiments that are all led by dental students and dental hygiene students who encouraged them to go after their dreams.
(View a video below.)
“The journey to whatever your goal is starts here,” Teddy Umo, a student at UMSOD, told the scholars during one of the Planet Smilez activities. “You’re never too young or too small to think big.”
Exercising the Mind and Body
In addition to the academic component, the virtual curriculum also made time for exercise and play. Every day, Nuñez would join the scholars in a virtual classroom and lead them in a jump rope challenge. Then, she would put on an exercise video and all of the scholars would get up and follow along with the cardio exercises.
“Movement science is a fun opportunity to get scholars off of their feet and moving!” said Nuñez. “It can be difficult to safely maintain an active lifestyle in our current pandemic, but jump rope challenges, dance fitness, superhero workouts, and yoga practices make exercise enjoyable and easy to complete within students’ homes.”
This summer program provided more than just fun learning activities for the scholars. It also provided a safe place to express themselves and talk about how they feel about all of the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each day the scholars were asked to share how they feel and how they can work together to develop a sense of self-determination and motivation to be their best selves.
“CURE has provided a sense of stability for scholars during an unstable time,” said Nuñez. “Without fail, scholars know that during these three weeks within the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., they will always have a session that will welcome them and provide a safe place where they are able to learn and engage in different activities.”
CURE instructors say that it was important to make the learning process a healing process for the scholars during such an uncertain time in the world. To reinforce this healing process, the scholars took the time to create their own affirmations and artwork to go along with them. Those affirmations incorporated some of UMB’s Core Values such as excellence, accountability, knowledge, and diversity. At the end of the program, the affirmations and artwork were turned into a book published by The Ethical Planet, a nonprofit created by children and teenagers whose mission is to change the world with the education of ethics and human values.
(View the book on Amazon.)
CURE Connections Summer
Meanwhile the high school scholars in CURE Connections (C2) had their own virtual summer programs facilitated by CURE Connections program specialists Stephanie Alphee, and Sequoia Wright, MA, MPH, along with Alma Smith, MS, CURE science teacher. C2 is a continuation of the CURE Scholars pipeline, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), that is specifically designed for ninth- and 10th-grade students.
For five weeks, they were able to log into a virtual classroom for career shadowing presentations. During the presentations, the scholars got to hear from panels of professionals and graduate-level students in the STEM, research, and health care fields.
These interactive presentations allowed the scholars to ask questions about different career and education paths. It also gave them the opportunity to network with professionals who gave them advice and words of encouragement.
“You are highly intelligent, and you are capable, so you just have to go out and keep pushing,” Tonya Webb, PhD, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told the scholars during her virtual presentation. “Even when it gets really challenging and really stressful just remember your goals and what you want to do, and you will get there.”
This virtual summer program is the perfect segue for the rising 11th-grade scholars who will be starting the Career Navigators Program in the fall. The Career Navigators Program is the next piece of the UMB CURE Scholars Program pipeline geared specifically toward 11th- and 12th-grade students. The program, which is partially funded by the Jack and Jill of America Foundation and the Edward St. John Foundation, is designed to guide the scholars through submitting college applications, navigating financial aid forms, acquiring internships and apprenticeships, and connecting with STEM professionals working in their area of interest.
As summer programming comes to a close, the CURE Scholars have a couple of weeks off before jumping right back into after-school programming in the fall. CURE leadership and program coordinators have been working tirelessly to design a completely virtual after-school program for both high school and middle school students that will begin in October 2020.
As a culmination of their efforts this summer, the CURE instructors were asked to share their reflections on Teaching Through COVID-19 for a research poster presentation at the Virtual SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) Summer Institute 2020.The poster was presented by the University of Maryland School of Medicine STAR-PREP Fellow and CURE Mentor Jatia Mills.