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Can STEM Learning Make a COVID Comeback? Solutions to Closing the Pandemic Education Gap and Moving Forward

By Hayden Schechter, Governor's STEM Scholars

Four years ago, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Offices, restaurants, and classrooms were empty. Computer screens served as proxy classrooms. For those with limited access to technology, preexisting inequities in education were exacerbated and STEM learning was significantly affected. The impact of this phenomenon is pervasive today.

STEM proficiency rates in New Jersey decreased remarkably compared to pre-pandemic levels. From 2019-2022, students lost three-fourths of a grade in math. Additionally, the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments report the percentage of students with proficiency in math fell from 44% to 37%. Studies also show that post-pandemic STEM proficiency for Black, Latino, and disadvantaged students in New Jersey is lower than for white students. To address these deficiencies and disparities, changes in the STEM curriculum are needed.  

For the past three years, I have tutored elementary and middle school students in STEM. Programs like STEAMpark’s Monmouth Stars offer weekly workshops, engaging summer programs, and learning opportunities for under-served youth. STEAMpark enables STEM high school students like myself to connect with students from different communities creating a unique learning exchange for tutors and students. Having experienced the challenges of remote learning, I understand the genesis of these educational gaps and the need for creative didactics in tutoring students. I also understand the importance of gaining STEM proficiency early in school to build a strong foundation for secondary education. 

In fact, within ten years, jobs in STEM-related fields are expected to grow by more than 10%. During the next decade, New Jersey’s labor gap will widen, potentially reaching an outstanding 400,000 unfilled positions by 2030. By creating a passion for STEM in education, there is the potential to increase employment and provide fulfilling careers. The Governor’s STEM Scholars nurtures talented STEM students from high school to the doctorate level by engaging with New Jersey’s STEM-related industries encouraging students to seek employment and establish roots here at home.

On July 28, 2023, Governor Murphy’s administration announced that for the 2024 fiscal year, $35 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding was allocated for high-impact tutoring and literary incentives to help students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These funds are being combined with $17 million in federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds bringing the total to $52 million. However, high-impact tutoring and funding alone are not enough to resurrect the STEM curriculum to pre-pandemic levels.

STEM learning needs to be introduced as early as pre-kindergarten to foster a developed interest. According to the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, early engagement in STEM learning activities can positively impact language and literacy outcomes conceivably having a dramatic impact on their education and future careers. Incorporating STEM into subjects like the humanities and modifying lessons to analyze a subject through the lens of STEM will create a lasting impact. Establishing “interdisciplinary connections” is key to a holistic STEM education as described by the Office of Innovation of the New Jersey Department of Education. Hands-on science projects like baking cookies or understanding the laws of physics through sports will engage students and relate STEM to the real world. In a Purdue University study, 64% of adults listed hands-on learning as the most effective teaching techniques in learning STEM subjects. By reimagining STEM education to include experiential learning activities, we will change the STEM curriculum. As I witnessed in the students I tutored, no matter the background, students have the intelligence and potential to learn STEM with creativity and commitment.

Albert Einstein once said, “If we teach today’s students, as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” In New Jersey, we have the opportunity and ingenuity to revitalize STEM learning in our public schools. By integrating STEM early in education, using hands-on learning techniques, instituting ubiquitous tutoring programs, and incorporating it into the humanities, English, and physical education, STEM will be an integral part of every child’s academic journey and as easy as 1-2-3.

Hayden Schechter is a junior at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology where his academic focus is environmental science and conservation. He has been active as a volunteer tutor for disadvantaged students at the After School Tutoring Educational Program (ASTEP), Monmouth Stars Summer Program, and the STEM Girls. He is a 2024 Governor’s STEM Scholar, a program of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey. 


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