Researchers Restructure Study With Main Goal of Supporting Teachers During COVID

Audrey Breen

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the research team made adjustments to their project, always thinking about how to serve their partnering teachers well.

With nearly $2M from the National Science Foundation and a three-year plan, Jenn Maeng, research associate professor at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, launched a study the fall of 2019 to support elementary school teachers’ efforts to teach engineering design with technology.

The plan was for Maeng and her team to study the effectiveness of a professional development program in enhancing teaching and learning. In winter 2020, 23 teachers from nine central Virginia school divisions signed on to participate in the program, Making Engineering Real, designed to “integrate engineering, digital technologies, and systems thinking into instruction.” The ultimate goal of the program is to improve students' engineering design, use of technology, and systems thinking. 

Virginia and national science standards continue to expand the teaching of engineering design and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts. 

“Expanding students’ exposure to STEM concepts like engineering design in the elementary school years is one way of increasing students’ motivation and capacity to ultimately pursue careers in these fields,” Maeng said.

However, research shows that elementary teachers’ use of digital technology is limited, as is their engineering instruction. Maeng and her team developed the professional development program to help teachers who specifically work with high populations of underrepresented students develop richer STEM educational experiences.

In January 2020, Maeng and her research team began to observe the teachers in their classrooms and prepare for 10 days of intensive professional development on Grounds at UVA during the summer of 2020. 

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“Our top priority was immediately serving our teachers well,” Maeng said. “We wanted to provide them with helpful content, but we also wanted to honor the incredible amount of stress they were under.”

The research team, which includes Whitney McCoy, postdoctoral research associate at the Curry School, and two faculty members from Michigan Technological University, decided to make significant changes to the project.

As part of the original project design, participating teachers would spend part of the summer experience developing and refining a set of lesson plans. Then, as teachers taught their lesson plans throughout the fall, McCoy and Amanda Gonczi, assistant research scientist at Michigan Tech, would visit the teachers’ classrooms, observe, provide feedback and opportunities for reflection all with the goal of improving the teachers’ practice.

“By the time schools shut down, we had already recruited our teachers into the project and had collected baseline data, including survey data and observations of classrooms,” Maeng said. “But once schools began shutting down, our teachers began to feel overwhelmed.”

Maeng said that they knew however they pivoted their project, it had to provide support for the participating teachers and not be just one more thing they had to navigate during this challenging time.

The first decision was to limit the summer experience to two 3-hour synchronous sessions, one in June and another in mid-July. The second decision was to only focus on one element of the content, using technology to teach engineering design. The team spent session one introducing the teachers to that content.

“Between the two sessions, teachers designed a lesson plan that integrated technology in the context of engineering design that they could teach in a virtual or in-person setting in the fall,” Maeng said. “Because at the time we didn’t know what schools would do in the fall, we wanted them to design something that could be used either way.”

In the second session, the research team introduced teachers to an engineering design challenge using an online simulation of a child on a skateboard to teach kinetic and potential energy, force, motion, and friction. The teachers were then challenged to design a safer car by applying those concepts. The challenge, turned virtual, involved teachers drawing a prototype of a car, where they labeled the parts and materials and justified how and why they designed their safe car. Ultimately, the teachers were asked to apply the concepts they learned from the lesson to the lesson they developed.  

After the second session, McCoy and Gonczi reviewed the plans and met individually with each participating teacher, offering feedback on ways to further improve them. But even more, the research team wanted these teachers to know they are supported.

“We are continuing to be in touch with these teachers,“ McCoy said. “One of the questions I have asked is how are they feeling about this lesson and how are they feeling about implementing this considering what is going on with their school situation. I want them to know that I’m thinking about them and I know they have a million emails coming down the pipeline right now.”

The biggest lesson Maeng has learned in this moment is the importance of being flexible and creative. That applies to both the research project and the individual teachers. 

McCoy’s hope is this moment will ultimately bring with it a greater focus on teachers and all that they do. 

“The pandemic has put a highlight on education and problems that have existed for decades,” McCoy said. “We still need to serve these students and teachers. Maybe people will pay more attention to them and give them more support in the long run.”

The research team is preparing for an in-person professional development experience for all of these teachers that will provide an opportunity for them to learn more of the content that was scaled down this year. The team will also begin recruiting a second cohort of teachers, primarily from southwest Virginia, to begin the professional development next summer.