I was blessed to work with the YWCA of Lincoln last semester, leading a SMART Girls afterschool program at Park Middle School. The SMART Girls clubs were started to encourage girls to explore STEM subjects in a positive and safe learning environment. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there were many obstacles to overcome before the clubs could be resumed last Fall. Typically, the club leader goes into the classroom after school gets out, and teaches engaging and fun STEM lessons to a group of 8-12 middle school girls. The small group environment helps the leaders connect with the students in a meaningful way. As I could not attend the club in-person, I had to make some significant adjustments in my plan before teaching my first online lesson.
First, I modified some of the SMART Girls existing curriculum and developed a few new lessons to make them more applicable for remote learning. Mind you, up to that point, I had only taught one lesson before this opportunity arose, in addition to one semester of observation in a math classroom during my sophomore year. As the leader of a SMART Girls club, I was now responsible for teaching about multiple STEM areas with no experience in doing so apart from mathematics. When developing the lesson plans, I also wanted to make sure that I could connect with the girls in the online environment. The afterschool program at Park Middle School did have an onsite supervisor who was my co-teacher for the club meetings. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet with her in advance. The other challenge that I faced was that the students ranged from sixth to eighth grades. So, I had to find activities that were engaging for girls in all of these grade levels.
The first lesson I taught was from the existing SMART Girls curriculum. I chose to do this for the first week to get a good understanding of my role, my classroom, and my co-teacher. The lesson went terribly. The difficulties were due to technical problems and not the lesson itself. I was initially told that I would be displayed on a large monitor for all the students to see and that I, in turn, would be able to see them as a group. This particular setup was not available at their club location- so, we adapted. We tried having all the students join the Zoom meeting on their Chromebooks, even though they were all sitting in the same room. This method was also not very effective, as there was too much sound reverberation in their room for me to hear. We would continue looking for a better way to conduct the lessons in future sessions. Other than the technical difficulties, the students and my co-teacher were amazing. We used private messaging in Zoom a lot that day so that my co-teacher, the students, and I could get to know one another.
The second lesson was another from the existing curriculum, and it was a total success. The experiment analyzed which type of bridges are sturdier: beam vs. string bridges. I had two co-teachers during this session- one gave instructions, and the other held the laptop so I could see the activity taking place. This was amazing because there were no sound issues, and I could be involved in the discussion and see everything. Only four girls showed up to the club that day, so that wasn’t a permanent solution when more students came. Incidentally, the girls learned that the beam bridge is sturdier as it held more pennies than the string bridge. I loved that they made the bridges themselves, along with the pulley that held the cup of pennies. To test the strength of their bridges, the girls added one penny at a time until the bridge collapsed.
The third club meeting was observed by my supervising professor at Doane, Dr. Jennifer Lorenzen, and the Project SERVE coordinator, Mark Bogen. The lesson that week was one I had modified from the existing SMART Girls curriculum. I developed an activity covering Math Bar Fractions but incorporated Hershey Bars to conceptualize the fractions. We also had a fun review game at the end of the lesson called “Trashketball”. Click here to see the lesson plan, the activity sheet, and google slide presentation. I decided that most of the students had probably used a colorful fraction bar before and would probably appreciate a real-life example of fractions made from parts of a familiar whole- especially since it was a delicious candy bar! I had learned about this activity in a class I took at Doane called Middle School Math Methods, and I was eager to try it out. I personally think that the lesson went really well, and the students enjoyed receiving the candy bar as part of their learning activity. However, my observers pointed out that there was a lot of quiet time during the main activity portion of the lesson. While the girls were doing the activity, there really wasn’t a way for me to interact individually with the students until it came time to wrap it all up. I had learned to be comfortable with the silence during the previous weeks because we had so many technical difficulties. The students went to my in-person co-teacher if they had questions. This issue is something that I will need to consider further if I find myself teaching via Zoom in the future. There may not be a co-teacher in the room with the students in remote learning situations.
I taught several other lessons last semester, and they also went very well. One issue was I had no idea how many girls would be there from week-to-week. Sometimes there were three, other times, the group was as big as twelve. We did lessons related to many different STEM topics, including lava lamps, chromatography, the scientific method, cloud in a jar, and the human heart. I am so glad I did two experiments for the chromatography lab; one was with skittles and water, while the other utilized a coffee filter, food coloring, and a straw. Through this module, we demonstrated that sometimes experiments fail- which is an important lesson to learn in STEM as well. I tried to show a video explaining the lab since I could not demonstrate in person. I wished I also had the materials to perform the experiment along with them or had the ability to try the experiment before their lab- to work out all the kinks in advance. These are lessons that will help me as a teacher in the future, whether I am teaching online or in-person.
Now that I am reflecting upon this experience, I think that meeting with my co-teacher beforehand would have helped a great deal. I believe that having the monitor displaying just me and my shared screen would have also been beneficial for the students, but we were able to overcome that problem. Also, I wish I had had more background and understanding of the other STEM topics I was trying to create lesson plans about. Lastly, Zooming in pairs or smaller groups ended up being a great way to cut down on the sound reverberation, along with muting everyone except the person talking.
I am thankful that I had this unique teaching opportunity, even though it wasn’t always easy. I want to thank Myeisha Essex, the director of the SMART Girls program at the Lincoln YWCA, and the Project SERVE Team for giving me the opportunity to work on this fantastic project. It was the highlight of each week during first semester, and I had so much fun. The girls were truly amazing, and so was my co-teacher at Park Middle School.
Ariel Ortiz (’22) is a Noyce scholar at Doane University. She plans to teach mathematics in a high-need secondary school upon graduation.