In January of 2021, after nearly a year of all-digital programming brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Science Center’s Youth Exploring Science (YES) Program returned for more in-person learning at the Taylor Community Science Resource Center. Pandemic restrictions and precautions have the program taking a hybrid in-person, part digital approach to keep YES Teens immersed in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM).
We spoke with Kerry Stevison, Manager of STEAM Content for the Community Science department, to learn more about what this new hybrid approach looks like, how the YES Program has adapted to virtual learning, and what 2021 will look like for staff and the teens.
A new approach
In 2020, the YES Program had to adopt remote learning to keep the teens engaged with STEAM. With the start of this semester, YES Teens have the option to participate in a hybrid learning model, where teens will come into the Taylor building for part of their weekly time, then supplement with at-home activities. To maintain safety during the pandemic, the teens adhere to new protocols like checking temperatures and wearing masks. Teens have the option to stay with all-virtual learning, too.
“But the in-person teens want those hands-on experiences,” Kerry says, “so they were happy to come back.”
Fundamentally YES’s hybrid program offers the same approach as before. Teens choose from a variety of STEAM components on topics like cyber security, engineering, and integrated health and medicine. “They do their components like they’ve always done,” Kerry says, “but now they’re also doing some things at home as well.”
“The in-person teens want those hands-on experiences, so they were happy to come back.”
For example, teens in Kerry’s aerospace component might watch something on the Four Forces of Flight and then answer questions through Google Classroom. Teens are also expected to complete weekly journaling assignments that help them build a personal connection with their supervisors.
While in-person attendance for the program started out lower than usual—something the team anticipated—numbers are going up. “We expected to see a bump in the number of teens participating,” Kerry says. “People want to get out of the house and go somewhere.”
The art of adaptation
Adapting the program to the reality of a global pandemic hasn’t always been easy.
According to Kerry, elements of what the Community Science team learned from the past year informed how they (and the teens) are approaching this new semester. One of the challenges was figuring out exactly how much content to have online and how much the teens should do in person.
“Doing hands-on projects at home wasn’t entirely successful [in 2020], as the teens missed the social aspects of the YES Program,” Kerry says. She points out that, like many students today, the teens in YES have to deal with the added stresses of social isolation and virtual burnout, which can make consistent participation hard. “So with the hybrid program, the teens do most of the hands-on projects when they’re in person.”
One necessary goal of the hybrid program was reducing the number of teens together in the building—a fly in the soup of a program with a strong social aspect. Across their four years in YES and within their components each semester, teens collaborate on STEAM projects and often build lasting friendships.
Those restrictions have pushed YES to software like Google Classroom or Zoom, allowing Kerry and other YES supervisors ways to meet with teens and monitor their progress. Those in the same component meet with their supervisor as a group to help maintain those social connections.
To bridge the in-person and virtual experiences, Kerry says, “What we’re doing right now is having the virtual teens show up remotely at the same time as the in-person teens. That way, they can still interact.” The scheduled meeting times also add a bit of structure and encourage teens to keep up their participation. In some groups, in-person teens are paired up with remote partners so that they can continue to collaborate on projects.
Planning for every possibility
While the YES Program’s new semester is off to a good start and the teens are happy to be back, long-term planning for YES is still an obstacle.
“Summer is going to be tricky,” Kerry says. “Planning outreach is going to be one of our biggest challenges, since we and many of our community partners will need to keep adapting programs due to Covid.”
In a typical summer, YES Teens at the sophomore level and above do public STEAM programming and outreach—an important part of the program—in places like libraries or at other community partner organizations.
This year, the teens in Kerry’s aerospace component will be doing pop-up programs in outdoor spaces like parks, or even the parking lots of community partners. Teens in the cyber security component will be doing outreach through the Science Center’s new Esports program, which launched in late 2020.
“Planning outreach is going to be one of our biggest challenges, since we and many of our community partners will need to keep adapting programs due to Covid.”
According to Kerry, several community partners are planning on doing versions of summer programs that YES will likely be able to participate in. To prepare, each supervisor is coming up with contingencies covering in-person, all-virtual, or hybrid programs. If a partner organization wants all-digital programming, the team is even working on kits of hands-on supplies that can be prepared in advance.
In addition to YES’s plans for summer, a new freshman class has started their training, and in April the YES seniors will celebrate their graduation from the program. Of the graduating teens, 90% are going on to college, and others have chosen to pursue careers in the military or attend a trade school.
It certainly seems like there’s no stopping the YES Program. Despite some very real challenges, Kerry and the rest of the YES supervisors and teens won’t be caught standing still.
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