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We can’t go back: COVID-19 impact on STEM education

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By Dr. Whitney B. Gaskins,
Assistant Dean University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science

Dr. Karen Bankston, CEO of KDB and Associates and Adjunct Professor at UC’s College of Nursing

Delano White, Executive Director of The Gaskins Foundation/STEMulates

Delano White. Photo provided

In 2001, the National Society Black Engineers (NSBE) held a public forum during its annual convention. The forum consisted of prominent national leaders who indicated then that there were issues within the African American community that needed to be at the forefront. During that forum, the organization launched the Technical OutReach Community Health program or T.O.R.C.H. The new program was designed to create solutions to address the Digital Divide.

The Digital Divide is formally defined as the gap between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. Generally speaking, that divide follows the socioeconomic divide within our country. Additionally the division between the haves and have-nots also included access to all types of technology. Even more differentiating is the gap that exists when stratifying the data by race, Blacks who tend to be in the lower SES strand than others.

T.O.R.C.H. Centers were launched in urban communities where students could go to gain access to various types of technologies. The strategy would later evolve to connecting youth in the Black community to spaces where technology was readily accessible. A major focus was on the importance of integrating technology into activities of daily living. The end goal was to prepare students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

In Cincinnati, organizations like STEMulates and the Minorities in Mathematics, Science and Engineering have taken on the local challenge of preparing our students. These and other organizations have provided support for thousands of students since the Digital Divide was recognized as a socioeconomic challenge.

Despite technology being increasingly woven into the fabric of our lives, the focus on strategies to narrow the digital divide waned. Having access to technology means increased learning opportunities for our students.

Learning outside of the classroom setting is critical for students to pursue higher educational opportunities. Now we’ve reached a point where the majority population has access to some form of technology, literally within the palm of their hands, but the minority population has been left behind. The digital divide has gotten wider. Unfortunately, there were those who were fooled into thinking that access to technology was the same as access to resources.

It is clear that the problem was underestimated. By most metrics, the urban community has made little progress in preparing our youth to enter into an increasingly competitive STEM workforce. We now recognize that access to technology was not the entire issue.

The issue is access to educational resources integrated into the technology. In this sense, we are no further along than we were 20 years ago. The light is once again being shone on the differences that exist between Black and White students in the urban core. COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-at-home orders have challenged the divide, both from a racial and social economic perspective.

Today, although our community has access to smartphones and hand-held technology, we are still lacking the appropriate level of understanding, training and resources needed to close the gap in our community. The resulting outcome is an appearance that students in the urban core are less prepared and less able to work during this time, students in suburban districts are better off.

“I often feel a lot of angst about our decision to raise our Black kids in Mason, but at this moment in time I am so pleased with this decision. The district has gone above and beyond to make sure every child has laptops that would work directly with the technology they are using. It is easy to get to the lessons. They have a technical support team that is willing and able to assist us getting started and with any issues that we encounter. They have been great,” said Dr. Littisha Bates, UC professor and mother of three Mason City School District students.

The experience for students within the urban core is different. The lack of resources to our students has been well documented. It’s not that the teachers and administrators within those districts care any less than teachers and administrators in resource-rich areas. It comes down to a question of an ability for the teachers to keep up with the volume of support that is needed to be provided.

How do teachers serve the masses when the resources are not there? The reality is that our students are suffering and falling behind. This decline in support is exacerbated by reports that schools in the urban core have ended their school year, because there is no efficient process to allow districts to hold students accountable.

Dr. Karen Bankston, CEO of KDB and Associates and Adjunct Professor at UC’s College of Nursing shared a story that she recently heard. “I saw a story online about a young man who was sitting outside of Subway Restaurant every day doing his homework. The school gave him a laptop, but he did not have internet access. Subway did.”

Dr. Karen Bankston. Photo provided

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and the situations that are being faced could not have been predicted. Nobody planned for the “now normal,” but, it has shown us that the technology gap exists along socioeconomic lines. The nuances of the environment may have changed, but the problem has not. The question is what happens when we move into the new normal?

Dr. Whitney Gaskins, Assistant Dean/professor in the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science and founder of The Gaskins Foundation, which offers free K-12 STEM programming throughout Cincinnati and other communities provides some solutions.

Dr. Whitney B. Gaskins. Photo provided

“I think there are some fundamental things that we can do, she said. “Every student needs to have a laptop in their hands and access to the internet. There needs to be safe spaces in the community where the education can continue outside of school hours. From a content side, we need to shrink the size of some of the content. If the kids are doing everything on their smartphones, some of the content should be easily available on those smartphones. If they can Tik-Tok on a phone, they should also be able to use their smartphone to build the next new hot app.”

Damaune Journey, past president of the National Society of Black Engineers and co-founder of the T.O.R.C.H. Program gave more insight on a global strategy. “Getting low cost/subsidized technology vouchers (chromebooks/internet) should be an imperative and big tech businesses should help. Healthy food, clean water and adequate shelter are rights that many in our community don’t have. It’s no surprise that critical technology is even further down the list, but it should be addressed with the others. The question is whether or not it should be free or subsidized. A market-based solution that the involves the beneficiaries of more ubiquitous internet (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, etc.) contributing via higher taxes or direct annual contributions/investment to heavily subsidize the technology vouchers makes sense, because these companies will be the financial beneficiaries almost directly and public-private partnerships work for all. An expanded internet user base is great for them. In turn, they should provide financial resources for the subsidies. Pennies in contributions/investment equal dollars in return for them and tens of dollars of benefit to our community, the nation and economy.”

It has been nearly two decades since the Digital Divide forum was hosted. We now must ask if we progressed as far as we believed that we had. Many of the same issues that were presented during 2001 still exist. As a people, we must raise our voices and support actions that reject the widening of the divide. We must create new strategies to empower students and their families to be successful and compete in this increasingly technologically focused society. 

For more information on becoming a part of the coalition to shrink the Digital Divide, please contact the Gaskins Foundation at ​info@thegaskinsfoundation.org​.

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