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COVID-19 forces ORNL researchers to take STEM education online

  • ORNL researchers are leading virtual STEM outreach activities, such as an Internet of Things demonstration in which participants in ORCSGirls control an LED board remotely.

  • ORNL researchers are leading virtual STEM outreach activities, such as an Internet of Things demonstration in which participants in ORCSGirls control an LED board remotely.

  • ORNL researchers are leading virtual STEM outreach activities, such as an Internet of Things demonstration in which participants in ORCSGirls control an LED board remotely.

  • ORNL researchers are leading virtual STEM outreach activities, such as an Internet of Things demonstration in which participants in ORCSGirls control an LED board remotely.

COVID-19 has upended nearly every aspect of our daily lives and forced us all to rethink how we can continue our work in a more physically isolated world.

And none more so than teachers; from kindergarten classrooms to college campuses, America’s educators have been forced to go virtual virtually overnight. Just ask researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who regularly volunteer at area schools through the Oak Ridge Computer Science Girls, or ORCSGirls, program to help cultivate the next generation of female STEM professionals.

Begun by ORNL’s Thomas Proffen, ORCSGirls aims “to inspire middle school girls in East Tennessee to actively explore the possibilities of technology to empower their future careers.” Since its founding in 2017, the program has inspired more than 2,000 females aspiring to make a career in the science and tech arenas.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced ORCSGirls mentors, including ORNL’s Katie Schuman, Samantha Erwin, Anne Berres, Dasha Herrmannova and Pravi Devineni to take their instruction online, a transition that has had both benefits and challenges.

On the plus side, the virtual lessons are drastically expanding the program’s reach online. Thanks to social media, the word is spreading far beyond East Tennessee.

“We get participants from Florida, the West Coast, you name it,” Berres said. Erwin, who has made a habit of promoting the classes on Twitter, added, “Social media is raising awareness across the country.”

ORCSGirls offers classes every week, with subjects ranging from artificial intelligence and ethics to the Internet of Things to cybersecurity to 3D modeling and simulation.

“Because many students return each year, we try to ensure the curriculum constantly changes. We have a growing, evolving set of classes,” said Herrmannova, adding that material from the classes is published online for free.

The mentors’ virtual journey began in March, when the pandemic forced a robotics bootcamp and regular classes to be postponed. “Disappointed to have to postpone the camp last minute, the focus moved quickly on how to support the girls during the pandemic,” said Proffen. “We thought, why not just do it online?” said Devineni.

Proffen was the first to try the new format, and it was such a success with approximately 30 attendees, that they decided to do a virtual class most Saturdays, along with occasional meetups on Thursdays.

“Thomas set up an Internet of Things class in his house where the girls could control LED boards remotely,” Schuman said. “There was a contest and the student who won got the setup to experiment with at home. The reactions were amazing.”

Even better, the structured classes have led to less formal hangouts. “They can explore results, advertise projects or share what they enjoyed during the more formal classes,” Berres said. In other words, the mentors and participants are creating their own online community.

But like most transitions, the move to virtual tutoring and mentoring hasn’t been all “rainbows and butterflies." For instance, finding the right classroom cadence can be more difficult online than in person.

“I really miss helping them individually and keeping up with the pace of the class,” Devineni said. “Different people go at different speeds, but online the fastest kids set the pace,” added Herrmannova.

Berres recalled a recent 3D modeling class she helped lead., “For some kids it came so easy, but it was really difficult for the others,” she said.

In addition, it can be difficult to gauge how excited the participants are in a virtual environment, said  Schuman. “And when they are engaged, the chat can get hectic,” Erwin added.

But all in all, the transition to virtual classrooms has been positive. And that success is critical to building on a program that is already showing real results.

One participant who has been attending ORCSGirls classes for years is now writing a mobile app that uses deep learning sound classification, which earned her a spot in Knoxville’s “20 Under 20” list.

“They are so sophisticated at doing this stuff,” Schuman said. “By the end of the machine learning class, they were writing Python code. I get questions from a 14-year-old girl about hyperparameters, imbalanced data sets, you name it.”

“Lots of the girls who participated in the past are now volunteers,” said Herrmannova. “They are now the experts, and it’s been a pleasure to see their development firsthand.”

ORCSGirls is currently seeking volunteers for their increasingly popular classes. Those interested are invited to contact the organization at volunteers@orcsgirls.org.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.