As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe at an alarming rate, local communities seek ways to slow the spread of the virus. For most people, the familiarity of daily life has come to a grinding halt. Several businesses are temporarily closed, the restaurants still in operation only allow take-out orders, and many schools, including Stevens Institute of Technology, have transitioned to remote learning for the foreseeable future. While the unprecedented nature of this global pandemic has caused mass uncertainty, it has also shown that communities are capable of providing support in innovative ways.
One such initiative is the Ask a Stevens Prof webinar series for K-12 students, organized and spearheaded by chemical engineering professor Stephanie Lee. The daily webinars are live, with "question and answer" portions included at the end of each session to provide an interactive experience. Each webinar is also recorded so students can view lectures they may have missed. “It started when I had to move my class online. I realized that we have the technology to use when we need it,” Lee said. “All these kids would be bored at home, and I thought, maybe now I can get them interested in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math!”
Lee belongs to a Hoboken, New Jersey moms group on Facebook where she created a post to gauge parent receptivity to a series of STEM-focused webinars for K-12 children and teens. “There was a lot of interest right away,” Lee said. “I recruited some faculty friends to join. It started out with a smaller group, but now we have representation from all four schools (Schaefer School of Engineering & Science, School of Business, School of Systems & Enterprises, and the College of Arts & Letters) at Stevens.”
So far, there are 17 scheduled webinars on a wide variety of STEM topics—and almost half of the participating professors are women. “I am also a Hoboken mom to a four-year-old boy,” said Ying Wu, a professor in the School of Business. “I completely understand the frustration of a Hoboken family who needs to simultaneously take care of their kids and work from home. When I got the message from Steph about the initiative on this series of webinars, I replied right away and wanted to join, as I know there is something that I can do for this community.”
Lindsey Cormack, a professor in the College of Arts and Letters, echoed this sentiment. “I have a seven-year-old at home. This transition has been a lot for people who are now finding themselves at home with the additional task of ensuring an educational environment for their children,” she said. “The Ask a Stevens Prof webinar series is a way to have a community effort to both provide a resource for kids at home and a 30-minute respite for parents who need help finding time to attend to work and home administration.”
Lee may have initiated the project, but she’s also received an outpouring of support from Stevens faculty. “It’s really amazing. Everyone wants to help out and we’re all really passionate about what we do, so we love sharing with other people—especially kids,” Lee said. “Getting them engaged in STEM topics is really exciting. I’ve had no problem recruiting anyone!”
And while Lee gives wholehearted credit to the participating professors, her colleagues recognize her visionary effort in this endeavor. “Stephanie deserves all the credit. People who organize and operate things in service of others are the really important hubs for all the Stevens professors operating like spokes on this wheel,” Cormack said.
A Sampling of STEM Topics
With webinar topics ranging from brain concussions to the Great Barrier Reef to unmanned aerial vehicles to atomic bombs, Lee envisions this as a unique opportunity to spark kids’ varying interests. With such a variety of offerings, there is a higher chance that students will discover a new idea or subject they’ve never encountered before. This introduces them to fresh concepts, potentially cultivating an interest in STEM they hadn’t experienced previously.
“When life is going on as normal, there is so much to do and kids are involved in different activities, so it’s hard to find a time when you can potentially reach out to so many people,” Lee said. “With so many professors participating, it gives kids a huge range of things they could potentially do or be interested in when they get older.”
The participant response has been encouraging, and it has provided a positive outlet for students, parents, and professors alike. “It was a lot of fun!” said George McConnell, professor in the biomedical engineering department. “Many of the students never heard of neural engineering, but knew something about Parkinson’s disease. A seven-year old told me that she really enjoyed it and looked forward to participating in more webinars in the future.”
While the current global situation is both unfortunate and unsettling, one silver lining is that the resources available for continued connection are quite astounding. Students can continue to learn, and professors can continue to teach. And even though Lee initially proposed the webinar idea to Hoboken parents, the series is accessible to students worldwide.
“We often hear about how technology is intruding into our lives, making us more connected, yet leaving us isolated. As someone who loves and works with technology daily, I saw this as a great opportunity to rewrite that narrative,” said Philip Odonkor, a professor in the School of Systems & Enterprises. “We have an opportunity to use technology in a way that truly brings our community together and engages them in a meaningful way. With all schools and playgrounds closed, our kids are more glued to their screens than ever. What better way to convert some of that time into meaningful learning experiences than through a webinar series with fellow Hobokenites working on some really cool research.”
Antonia Zaferiou, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, also sees the great potential of technology in this unprecedented moment. “Despite the enormous physical, psychological, and economical challenges society is facing, we also have a unique opportunity to join together virtually and connect with new people,” she said.
The participating professors recognize the immense psychological impact this experience will have on the global community. They know how important it is to provide inspiring experiences during times of collective uncertainty. “In a time when uplifting news seems harder and harder to come by, it is easy for us to lose sight of some of the amazing work being done across the globe to build a safer and better future,” said Xian “Annie” Zhang from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “As researchers and educators, it is our responsibility in times like this to highlight our research, and to spark joy and hope for a brighter future.”
Future Outreach Possibilities
It is true that this global pandemic has required Stevens professors to find innovative solutions to unexpected problems, and this webinar series is one way the Stevens community has stepped up to serve the needs of the Hoboken community and beyond. However, the experience has also opened doors for continued outreach.
Many professors prefer face-to-face interaction, and for good reason. Regardless, global connectivity provides opportunities that haven’t existed before and, in many ways, these are largely untapped. This experience has spurred the Stevens community to temporarily adapt to a new way of learning. While it’s natural to feel some frustration at the sudden limitations, there is also a large amount of unexplored potential in remote learning modalities.
“Already some of us are talking about how we can extend this further and build it into something; it has opened our minds to different ways of outreach,” Lee said. “Maybe we can give virtual tours of our labs and classrooms in the future.”
During times of crisis, it’s inspiring to witness the ways a community will unite to create support and solutions. “We’re in a really unique time where kids can’t go out or go to the playgrounds. They can watch YouTube videos, but it’s not the same as being able to ask questions in real-time and get answers," Lee said. “For Hoboken kids, this is really cool because it’s happening in their backyard. Many of them have probably been to campus, but they haven’t seen the laboratories or heard about the research. This is a fun way to engage them.”
Even more than that, Lee sees this as another opportunity to spread her passion for STEM. “When you’re young you hear about doctor, lawyer, or teacher, but there are so many cool areas that kids can explore. And I think with this global pandemic it’s really clear that we need more scientists and engineers.”
Learn more about this initiative and the schools behind it: