Today on Frontiers, we’re happy and also sad to welcome Dr. Elaine Villanueva Bernal, who, for the past several months, has served as the STEM, Digital Learning Strategist for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, here at WCET. Elaine’s post looks back on the time spent creating content with WCET, with particular attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted their personal and professional life and the continued impact the pandemic has on students. Elaine outlines important themes and lessons taken from the content she created, including podcasts, blog posts, and other outstanding resources.

Thank you, Elaine, for working with us and best wishes with your future projects – I’m pretty sure we have a few interview spots saved for you for some Frontiers Pod episodes!

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


After over two years into the pandemic, my household contracted COVID-19. I have always been prepared and have been able to adapt when students and colleagues get sick. However, when COVID hits home, it is certainly a different experience.

All in all, my family and I were ill for about two weeks. We isolated, rested, healed, and are currently recovering. Our children missed school and my spouse, who is currently in a teaching credential program, missed two class meetings for a summer course. Fortunately, I scheduled my CHEM 100 summer class to be completely online.

To various extents, we all tried to keep up – I kept up with my teaching obligations for wrapping up the end of the semester and the first week of summer school, my spouse diligently made-up work from missing class, and our children did what they could for their online assignments that were available. As we informed family and friends that we contracted COVID-19, we were very fortunate to have folks support us with having meals and groceries delivered to our home and regularly checking in on us if we needed anything. When my spouse and I informed our campus institution and I informed our children’s schools about contracting COVID, I found the response to be for the most part transactional and logistically focused – we were instructed on how long to isolate, when we could return, and testing requirements. Further, for my spouse and our children, they were simply instructed to somehow keep up with the work as much as they could online – and my spouse expressed that while they were not necessarily expecting sympathy, the response from their instructors came off cold. Our recent COVID experience made me think about the how we should all be responding to the continued presence of COVID-19 – how do we navigate digital learning not only as a response to the pandemic itself, but also in a way that honors people’s experiences with COVID? How can we use such strategies to continue to develop engaging and sustainable digital learning that serves everyone?

A Closer Look Back

As of a few weeks ago, the United States surpassed over one million COVID-19 deaths, which, in the last 20 years, is more than the number of deaths from car crashes or on battlefields in all of the country’s wars combined. Despite the tragic and significant loss of life, researchers argue that the pandemic has, and will continue, to have the longest-lasting impact on education. The United Nations estimated that 1.6 billion learners in 190 countries in all continents and all continents have been affected, with an average school closure of 4.5 months. Much of the resources we produced at WCET explored educational leaders’ experiences with and responses to the pandemic. We produced podcasts and published blogs on the following topics:

The following are important lessons and themes that emerged from conversations throughout the past year:

Contextualization

Contextualizing teaching strategies that promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM education include the use of digital platforms to understand the relationships between STEM and society.

In the podcast with Dr. Lisa Martin, she discussed how her science education students were able to use electronic databases and mapping tools to see how marginalized communities were impacted the most by environmental and climate injustices.

Dr. Joni Oddie-Ricks’ podcast episode showed the importance of learning digital and scientific literacy and its relationship with communication and messaging, especially in light of the general public regularly seeking COVID-19 updates through social media platforms. Dr. Oddie-Ricks also emphasized that it is crucial to stay connected to local issues, as many scientific and public health decisions are made through local governance.

Connection

Contextualizing learning can create a sense of connection for learners. For example, in Dr. Martin-Hansen’s science education courses, students make the connections between STEM and the communities in which they live. Students have expressed a sense of empowerment in using what they learn to advocate for a safer and healthier environment in their cities. Connection can also take place in personalized learning. In Dr. Patrice Prusko’s podcast episode, much of the conversation revolved around connecting with students through their unique contexts and identities. Course design and instruction were built with a trauma informed framework focused on care, support, and compassion.

Dr. Prusko’s discussion showed the importance of collaborating with different campus units such as the accessibility office and student services to meet students wherever they are at and create safe online spaces where learners are free to share their thoughts and their whole selves.

Community

Contextualization and connection allow learners to find a common ground and build community. In Dr. Prusko’s podcast episode, we learned that when faculty and instructional teams build online courses with their learners in mind and consistently and authentically show students that they are there to support their learning, students will feel a sense of belonging in a virtual and remote environment. This was conducive to building communities based on time zones, research projects, and different disciplines. In the podcast episode with Drs. Manke and Trimble, the Photovoice project demonstrated how students were able to build an online community through sharing their unique experiences throughout the pandemic.

Guiding Questions & Resources

Based on the themes above, here are guiding questions that educators and administrators can use to facilitate conversations and discussions on creating a responsive and engaging course design and teaching strategy.

  1. What are tools and resources available via your institution to help you explore learners’ contexts? Are there professional development opportunities available via your institution or community-based organizations that are partnered with your campus that address the needs of the existing student demographic?
  2. Do faculty have professional development resources and opportunities on how to facilitate meaningful and authentic interactions with students? Topics include inclusive mentoring, communication, education on microaggressions, and being mindful of students’ health and well-being. Are there working relationships with student services such as student life and development and psychological services?
  3. What professional development opportunities do faculty have in building online community spaces? As highlighted in the podcast episodes, communication is key as is a strong sense of students’ context. Below are articles that include good starting points and considerations on how to build online communities.
  4. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/five-ways-to-build-community-in-online-classrooms/
  5. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/57241/six-ways-to-build-community-in-online-classrooms
  6. https://tatp.utoronto.ca/teaching-toolkit/teaching-with-technology-teaching-online/community-online/

Elaine Villanueva Bernal

STEM, Digital Learning Strategist for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, WCET

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