Stem education expert warns against ongoing school disruptions

Stem: Science, technology, engineering and math

Jennifer Flanagan

Ahead of Family Literacy Day on January 27th, Canadian STEM expert and CEO of Actua, Jennifer Flanagan, warns policymakers about the devastating effects of ongoing and inconsistent school and activity closures.

“After two years of the pandemic, it is clear from listening to researchers, parents and teachers that ongoing school disruptions, negative virtual learning experiences – or lack thereof – and prolonged screen time have had a profound negative impact on literacy and numeracy rates, confidence, motivation and love of learning among youth,” said Flanagan. “And these negative impacts are exponentially worse for youth facing socio-economic barriers including a lack of access to technology and online learning.”

As families in most provinces grapple with a return to virtual learning for an unknown period, parents, teachers and policymakers must be aware of the academic and social impacts ongoing learning disruptions and continued school closures have on youth. Namely: Students are falling behind in both literacy and numeracy skills– core foundational elements of STEM.

Youth are losing confidence in themselves with the lack of activities, sports and real-time feedback from teachers. Students, and in particular girls who are more likely to struggle generally with confidence issues in areas like math and science, are less likely to see themselves as successful leaders in the future without this confidence.

Motivation among youth is being hindered dramatically as students struggle with an online learning environment that can often feel unnatural and monotonous.

Perhaps most consequential is the concern that ongoing school disruptions and a negative virtual learning experience can seriously erode a core love of learning, which are key indicators of future success.

In response to a growing, collective concern among parents and teachers, Jennifer has developed key tips to address the most pervasive issues:

  • Reinstill a sense of optimism by reminding youth how much we have accomplished and achieved over the past two years thanks to science, technology and innovation.
  • Modify your child’s online learning schedule to make it work for their unique learning styles and needs, as well as your own needs! Give your kids some options and have a conversation about what would help increase their level of engagement (snacks, breaks, colouring pages, calm music, etc.).
  • Focus on achieving just one thing each day – big or small. Celebrate and name the wins to boost confidence.
  • Remind your kids about online safety. They are spending hours unsupervised online, and it is essential to talk to them about what they are doing online, who they are talking to and any challenges they are facing. It’s also vital to have regular discussions about privacy, good online behaviour and what to do if they encounter a problem.
  • Ensure that seated online time is balanced with outdoor and physical playtime. Movement, dance, music and physical activities contribute to mental wellness which is more important to learning than ever before.

“We started the pandemic promoting the message that “the kids will be ok” and that simply isn’t the case anymore. It is critical we are aware of the negative impacts so we can work together to build the resources youth need to get back on track. Parents need to know that they are not alone in their frustration and concern and that the negative behaviours and personality changes they are seeing in their children are common.”

Jennifer Flannagan is the CEO of Actua, a leading Canadian STEM outreach organization, an outreach and education expert, who holds a BSc, M.B.A. and an Honorary Doctorate in Science and Engineering from Concordia University. She is available for interviews.

Actua is Canada’s largest science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) youth outreach network representing 43 university and college based members.