Synthesizing Findings from Education Research Conducted During the Pandemic: Emerging Lessons From COVID-19

Submitted by Cadre-Admin on Thu, 06/30/2022 - 10:25

Vanessa Peters, Senior Learning Sciences Researcher, Digital Promise

In this brief report, we share early selected findings from a review and synthesis of research outcomes on the unanticipated effects of the pandemic on STEM teaching and learning. The summary includes research from RAPID and non-RAPID awards across a range of NSF directorates, divisions, and programs, and draws on research conducted on both K-12 and undergraduate STEM teaching and learning.

Teaching the science of COVID-19

Several awards used the context of the pandemic to develop resources for teaching STEM concepts to students. In a project that targeted youth audiences, Diamond et al. (2021) created comic stories that helped young audiences understand the science behind COVID-19. Developed in collaboration with virologists and artists, the fictional comic stories addressed topics in biology, virology, and network science to help readers understand the complexities of living through a viral pandemic. While youth both enjoyed and appreciated learning from comics, questions remain around artistic representations that can support science identity among youth who are historically underrepresented in science. In a study by Strawhacker et al. (2021), researchers simulated a pandemic in the virtual world Whyville to provide a safe space for youth to learn about serious pandemic-related topics such as infection, asymptomatic disease transmission, prevention measures, and the consumption of public reports of health information.

At the undergraduate level, Garza and Solis-Cavazos (2021) engaged community college students in a faculty-developed curriculum where students collected real-time data about the coronavirus to develop their quantitative reasoning skills. Students recorded their daily temperatures and shared their data with the crowdsourcing app Kinsa HealthWeather that uses anonymized, aggregated data to provide information to the public about illness levels in local areas. Using in-depth qualitative interviews as data sources, Wade et al. (2021) investigated HBCU students’ COVID-19 knowledge, sources of information, and planned precautions. Findings revealed that most students viewed COVID-19 as a minor flu-like illness that originated overseas before its transition to the US.

Adaptations to K-12 science teaching and professional development

Many awards looked at the impact of the pandemic on STEM teaching and learning in K-12 schools. In a project by Gao et al. (2021), researchers surveyed California school districts and science teachers to understand the impact of COVID-19 on science education when schools were mainly virtual. Survey data were supplemented by interviews with education partners from high-need districts, early implementation districts, county offices of education, science education organizations, and statewide policymakers. Survey results found that more than half of districts reported that science became a lower priority during the 2020-21 school year. Interviews with science educators from rural counties suggested that lower population density, remote location, and ample outdoor space made it easier to continue science education during the pandemic.

A number of the awards examined how districts adapted their plans and processes for teacher professional development (PD) during the pandemic. In one project, researchers Zarch et al. (2021) created a Continuous Improvement model of virtual professional development for computer science teachers. Using data gathered from evaluators and administrators of PD programs in 2019 and 2020, the project distilled lessons to inform future online PD efforts and support a virtual approach as a mechanism for scaling computer science teacher PD. In another project, Sadler et al. (2020) led professional development workshops for high school teachers where they collaboratively designed instructional activities about COVID-19. In this project, the use of a collaborative online space and breakout rooms from a video conferencing platform were particularly important for the successful enactment of the program.

Undergraduate students’ remote learning experiences

Several projects examined college students’ remote learning experiences in their STEM courses during the pandemic. In a national survey of over 1,000 undergraduates, Means et al. (2021) explored questions around students’ technology access, interactions with the instructor and other students, curricular support, and the struggles associated with learning from home. The research found that student satisfaction with their course after it went fully online was lower for students describing STEM courses than for students describing non-STEM courses. Major challenges to continuing with their course (such as lack of a quiet place to work and conflicts with family care or job responsibilities) were more prevalent among women, students identifying as a race/ethnicity group minoritized in STEM, students taking their course at a community college, and those from lower-income households.

In a project by Erickson et al. (2022), researchers collected descriptive data of students’ perspectives of over 20 remote undergraduate research programs. Using structured templates, the researchers documented how the programs were designed and implemented, and who participated. Focus groups and surveys collected information on programmatic strengths and shortcomings and recommendations for improvements from students. Program strengths included the quality of mentorship, opportunities for learning and professional development, and feeling connected to a larger community. Weaknesses included limited cohort building, inadequate structure for program activities, and issues with technology.

Remote research methods during the pandemic

Some of the research from the NSF awards highlighted how researchers have adapted new tools and methods as a result of having to conduct research remotely during the pandemic. Projects led by Barron et al. (2021) and Kientz et al. (2021), for example, used remote diary methods to understand how families navigated the challenges and opportunities associated with the emergency switch to homeschooling. Using a range of online tools and platforms, the researchers interacted with families in near real time to collect rich qualitative data from families, including those located in remote geographic locations. Researchers identified several opportunities afforded by remote research methods including greater reach and access to families, an abundance of rich data sources that could easily be contributed by participants, and work efficiencies resulting from automated digitization and transcription tools. Challenges included large dataset sizes, the cost of digital tool subscriptions, and ethical questions around data ownership and privacy.

The research summarized above represents only a small number of the NSF-supported research projects that investigated how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted aspects of STEM teaching and learning. A review of a larger set of awards is currently underway to identify groupings and themes across projects. The outcomes of this effort will be shared with project principal investigators in a series of workshops planned for fall 2022 to identify the important findings, insights and recommendations for K-12 and undergraduate STEM Education.


Diamond, J., Spiegel, A., Hill, T. W., VanWormer, E., Gaiashkibos, J., Hall, B., Sutherlen, A., & McQuillan, J. (2021). Developing pandemic comics for youth audiences. Journal of STEM outreach, 4(2), 10.15695/jstem/v4i2.03.

Erickson, O. A., Cole, R. B., Isaacs, J. M., Alvarez-Clare, S., Arnold, J., Augustus-Wallace, A., ... & Dolan, E. L. (2022). “How do we do this at a distance?!” A descriptive study of remote undergraduate research programs during COVID-19. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(1), ar1.

Gao, N., DiRanna, K., & Chang Fay, M. T. (2022). Impact of COVID-19 on science education: Early evidence from California. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA.

Garza, N., & Solis-Cavazos, G. (2021). RAPID: Using Real Life COVID-19 Data to Teach Quantitative Reasoning Skills to Undergraduate Hispanic STEM Students.

Means, B., Peters, V., Neisler, J., Wiley, K., & Grifths, R. (2021). Lessons from remote learning during COVID-19. Digital Promise, San Mateo, CA.

Sadler, T. D., Friedrichsen, P., Zangori, L., & Ke, L. (2020). Technology-supported professional development for collaborative design of COVID-19 instructional materials. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 171-177.

Strawhacker, A., Kafai, Y., Giang, M. T., Fields, D., & Tofel-Grehl, C. (2021). Designing the Virtual SPIKEY-20 Epidemic: Engaging Youth in Seeking Information and Using Personal Protection. In Interaction Design and Children (IDC '21), 558–562.

Takeuchi, L., Martin, C. K., & Barron, B. (2021). Learning together: Adapting methods for family and community research during a pandemic. New York: Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Wade, J., Poit, S. T., Lee, A., Ryman, S., McCain, D., Doss, C., Shrestha, S., & Morgan, A. A. (2022). Navigating a pandemic: A qualitative study of knowledge, sources of information, and COVID-19-related precautions taken by HBCU students. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

Zarch, R., Sexton, S., McGill, M., Rasberry, M., Ong, C., Hollis, S., & Smith, J. (2021). Hindsight 2020: Guidebook for Virtual Professional Development for Computer Science: Lessons learned from Summer 2002.