Pandemic pupils

How Covid-19 has transformed my perspective on outreach and education
April 2021
MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography / Applied Ocean Science and Engineering

Going to graduate school anywhere can be a form of culture shock. Often, the transition is from cosmopolitan to erudite and razor-focused, or team-based and casual to more isolated. But moving to do graduate school in a northeastern city in the U.S. from somewhere more rural, such as southwestern Virginia (where I came from), can compound the shock. When you come from a less university-focused area, the bubble around Boston can make a person blissfully unaware or painfully conscious of the divide between the life of a graduate student in a metro city and the rest of the country. The apparent separation between us in Massachusetts and much of the rest of the country is so palpable that it has even warranted “democracy tourism” to help Bay Staters connect. In this form of tourism, Massachusetts residents get first-hand experience with the issues they’re attempting to address nationwide by visiting other parts of the nation, rather than viewing those places through MA-lenses. This year in the pandemic, being able to connect with students around the country (and even the globe) through virtual education, has given me my own taste of democracy tourism without having to leave home.

As a result of the virtual education situation, something unexpected has kept me connected (grounded?): my four younger siblings, who have also been completing their classes online. While I was once quite removed from the schoolwork of my brother, who is 9 years younger, now I find myself on the phone talking about freshman geometry. This has been a welcome diversion, and a reminder of why I chose to attend graduate school in the first place: to use my skills in research to contribute to the education system. Talking to my brother through the unique way that his problems are formulated has given me an outlet for putting my passion for education in action, without having to take time out of my research. 

Still, the differences have been jarring. Going back to the life of a high schooler after 9 months entrenched in MIT-style academia in my first year of graduate school has lent me perspective. The high school outreach activities we graduate students have available for us to do in Cambridge - for example, inviting girls to the MIT Museum to explore their interests in science - aren’t the same as outreach experiences elsewhere. My brother attends an information technology-focused high school program, so the experiences at his disposal are broader than those of the average student. Even so, he doesn’t have MIT students visiting his school, or a biotechnology hotspot at his doorstep. The teach-ins are more modest, and the funding for enrichment programs is sparser.

Because of their proximity to hubs of higher education, the local students that we attract to MIT for engagement are much more likely to be exposed to technology and innovation, and the way students learn in Cambridge is fundamentally flavored by the context of the city. My brother would have to drive hours to get the variety of field trips that you can arrive at in a few minutes in the greater Boston area—from historical sites to museums. These things are often taken for granted once you’ve lived in Cambridge for long enough. Education and outreach here is different from the way my brother learns at a school in Florida, and the way that I did several years ago, mainly due to proximity. 

As part of the pandemic experience, I participated in outreach activities like teaching a class of middle schoolers about my bioinformatics subject. Some of these were structured programs, such as Rainstorm, a virtual extension of Spark, and some were part of volunteer-based, such as CovEd, a tutoring effort to link university students to virtual K-12 learners. I spoke about my study species, Emiliania huxleyi (learn more by starting here), a phytoplankton, or photosynthesizing microbe, that produces calcium carbonate sheaths, making it important for global calcium cycling in the ocean. This experience was very important in helping me to understand all the subtleties of online teaching, and just how important educational differences are to a student’s point of view.

While normally my Spark class would have been taught in the Cambridge area, this online offering permitted a more diverse array of students, allowing me to experience some form of “educational tourism”. Some students came in with an immediate base knowledge of oceanography, microbiology, etc., and it was tempting to cater to these students - to get on with my spiel. But it quickly became clear that another, more silent sector of the class needed extra explanation on the preliminary terms and ideas - they hadn’t seen them before. The online format presented a special challenge because the silence of muted virtual participants is especially easy to ignore as the instructor. Virtual teaching demands a special form of hearing, even when the “room” you’re reaching out to is totally silent.

The pandemic has given me new perspectives on the state of education here in Cambridge and around the country, and has helped me to identify my areas of weakness as a teacher. By teaching students around the country, but also my siblings back at home, I explored areas of knowledge that I hadn’t tapped for years. I brushed up on geometry, and had to dig back into my textbook for statistical and calculus knowledge when I needed to teach a short class on Bayesian statistics. Through reaching out to my brother for help on his virtual playing tests, I even rekindled my interest in the violin. In the post-pandemic world, after a year of virtual schooling, students will have a whole new set of experiences with learning in their toolbox - for better or for worse. Perhaps in the process, teachers like me will burst our local bubble and gain traction on the skills it takes to cater to a diverse student population, whether they grew up in southwest Virginia or have long been acquainted with scientists at MIT.