Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on STEM-interested College Students

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December 13th, 2021

Authors: Preeti Gupta, Rachel Chaffee, Karen Hammerness, Anna MacPherson, and Kea Anderson with Youth Co-Researchers: Mahmoud Abouelkheir, Lucie Lagodich, Manaka Shiomi & Erica Chen

“When I started at college, being a woman [in] STEM was very isolating for me because a lot of people in my classes didn’t really share similar experiences. … I just felt like I couldn’t connect with them. …. I’ve always felt that way going through college as a woman in computer science. But in the pandemic it was even more magnified like, wow. This is very isolating as a woman in tech. I reached out to my friends and over time I was able to build a small community of women who do share similar experiences … they also shared the same sentiment about it being an isolating experience.” – Sanvi, Second year CS Major, South-Asian female

Sanvi’s characterization of how the pandemic ‘magnified’ feelings of isolation and lack of connection is reflective of reports across the nation of the impact of the pandemic upon young adults/college students. In our one year-NSF-funded RAPID study, we sought to document, characterize, and understand the impacts of the pandemic on college youth, as well as identify potential supports youth could or were using to ameliorate some of the negative repercussions of the pandemic on their academic trajectories. (Download our full report).

Quick Study Summary:

This mixed-methods study utilized student and faculty surveys, social network analysis and interviews to examine the impact of the pandemic on the academic pathways of 190 college youth who are participants in a larger NSF-funded longitudinal study (award #1561637) of youth pathways (n560). 80% of the participants in our study identify as BIPOC; 70% of participants identify as female. 78% of participants have declared a STEM major or are planning to major in STEM.

In this one-year RAPID study we asked: 1.) What is the impact of the educational disruptions and loss of opportunities due to the pandemic on youth who are typically underrepresented in science? 2.) What types of supports and resources are youth drawing upon to mitigate these disruptions as they formulate new plans and make decisions during the pandemic in relationship to their academic and professional pursuits?

Key Findings:

A majority of the students (85%) in our study reported that the pandemic had an impact on their academic experiences and trajectories. Challenges with online and hybrid courses were a key source of reported impacts: nearly all students indicated they took college courses remotely or in a hybrid model during the 2020-2021 academic year, with 70% of students learning entirely or almost entirely remotely during that time. 30% of students had a blend of online and in-person classes.

Challenges to degree and major requirements appear most severe for students who are just finishing their second year of college. COVID-related disruptions were more likely to be an obstacle to completion of advanced level coursework and degree requirements as one gets closer to declaring a major. A small percentage of participants state that the pandemic has caused them to switch majors or consider switching majors. Our interview data suggests that there are several reasons students switched majors, including avoiding courses that require computation thinking and mathematical problem-solving that were described as difficult to complete in a virtual learning environment and lack of access to hands-on lab and collaboration experiences in required STEM courses.

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As we anticipated, closed and/or restricted campuses had a major impact on how students lived and learned. Students reported missing opportunities to gain hands-on experiences with science practices and a loss of ability to collaborate with peers, limiting students ability to fully engage in coursework. Remote and virtual learning hindered students’ ability to develop relationships with peers, faculty, and mentors and limited access to the on-campus academic supports necessary for meeting degree requirements. Not surprisingly, campus shutdowns & quarantine conditions also contributed to students’ personal and social lives in multiple ways: students reported an increasing sense of isolation that impacted their motivation and productivity, particularly for those who quarantined home with family. Students struggled to network, find, and create community and a sense of belonging, especially if they had limited access to peers of similar race, gender, or socio-economic circumstances to connect with. More than half the students we interviewed felt there was a lack of mental health supports on their campuses.

Students we interviewed articulated positive and negative ways in which faculty adjusted to virtual environments. Students reported that flexibility around academic workloads and deadlines was central to their success in their coursework during the pandemic. Unfortunately, many students in our study did not benefit from such accommodations: over half of the students we interviewed remarked that  faculty had made few shifts or changes to their instruction or demands during the pandemic. These students reported not only uneven policies for adjusting workloads and deadlines, but also faculty who added work to courses that students’ felt did not support learning. Those students we interviewed who did experience flexibility in courses found it beneficial, not all agreed; some expressed frustration with low expectations.

In some circumstances, faculty limited communication between themselves and students and between students and their classmates (e.g. turning off Zoom chat features, not welcoming questions or interaction during online lectures). These approaches further isolated students already cut off from in-person interactions and experiences they had relied on to advance their studies, negatively affecting student morale and for some, academic progress. Further, minimal opportunities for in-person & virtual interaction hindered students’ ability to develop relationships with faculty needed for future recommendation letters or connections to internships.

Social network analysis revealed that students sought multiple types of support from almost everyone in their networks. Survey findings revealed that friends and peers were identified as the most utilized source for both academic and personal/social support during the pandemic. Peers provided vital guidance regarding courses, including course content support and decisions about course taking. In interviews, students detailed common strategies used to access academic support from peers via virtual environments like WhatsApp and Discord. Students described how these groups have been critical for them because it is where they feel comfortable revealing where they need help, using peers to problem solve and at the same time, develop trusting social relationships.

Implications & Next Steps

This RAPID study has surfaced current student concerns regarding their academic experiences and pathways while attending college during the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We invite readers to review our full report for concrete implications and actionable steps parents, mentors, faculty, staff, and institutions of higher education can pursue to support college students in mitigating the impact of the pandemic and capitalize on their pursuits of STEM college degrees and careers.

As we continue to pursue the implications of these findings in our own work and programming with youth and college students, we wonder how others like us, who work with youth and college students and young adults, are changing, shifting and developing efforts to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. How has your institution developed, changed or shifted practices and policies to support youth? To ameliorate gaps in their foundational understanding that they have identified and are concerned about? Have you or your department or institution tracked changes in students’ majors due to the pandemic? What are you learning about the impact of the pandemic upon major choices, or even career trajectories at that time? Please JOIN US and share your observations, experiences and advice with us and our colleagues in our efforts to learn better how to support youth and young adults during this prolonged crisis via our social media: @nycsrmc (IG, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook). You can also contact us about the study via email: