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Adapting a Neural Engineering Summer Camp for High School Students to a Fully Online Experience

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting health and safety concerns caused the cancellation of many engineering education opportunities for high school students. To expose high school students to the field of neural engineering and encourage them to pursue academic pathways in biomedical engineering, the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) at the University of Washington converted an in-person summer camp to a fully online program (Virtual REACH Program, VRP) offering both synchronous and asynchronous resources. The VRP is a five-day online program that focuses on a different daily theme (neuroscience, brain-computer interfaces, electrical stimulation, neuroethics, career/academic pathways). Each day, the VRP starts with a live videoconference meeting (lecture and interactive discussion) with a CNT faculty member. The online lectures are supported by at-home learning resources (e.g., text, videos, activities, quizzes) embedded within a digital book created using the Pressbook platform. An online bulletin board (Padlet) is also used by students to share artifacts and build community. Program evaluation will be conducted by an external evaluator. A summative survey will collect information on participants’ experiences in the VRP and will help inform future iterations of the program. Although significant time was required to create a digital book, the VRP will reach a larger audience than the prior in-person program and resulted in the creation of learning tools that can be used in the future.

Challenge Statement

Like many other engineering education programs across the country, the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington struggled during Spring 2020 to decide whether to cancel, continue with, or adapt a university-based, in-person summer camp program for high school students, without knowing how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect state, local, and university policies. We ultimately cancelled several of our summer research experience programs for undergraduate and pre-college students because in-person laboratory research with guests was not going to be feasible on our university’s campus. However, we felt that a new online program could provide high school students with a learning community centered on their interests in neuroscience, neural engineering, and neurotechnologies. Therefore, we cancelled our Young Scholars Program-REACH, a five day, fee-based, in-person summer camp program, and created something different: the Virtual REACH Program (VRP), a fully online, free program offering both synchronous (live presentations and office hours) and asynchronous (videos, readings, and activities) elements for at-home learning to be held over a five day period during July 2020.

The original, in-person program, Young Scholars Program-REACH, was a fee-based, revenue-generating program for high school students that had been offered over the prior three summers. The program model included two five-day sessions for 25 students per session. Participants received an introduction to the topics of neuroscience, neural engineering, and neuroethics by attending presentations by faculty members, touring university engineering labs in the departments of bioengineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, and engaging in workshops and activities (e.g., sheep brain dissection lab, college preparation workshop). A major goal of the REACH program was to expose STEM-interested students to the field of neural engineering, including its interdisciplinary nature, and provide them with a window into university-based research. Our design challenge for the online program was to create a set of activities that was similar to the REACH program but delivered virtually to meet multiple criteria and constraints, as outlined below.

Novel Initiative

Due to the cancellation of many other summer STEM programs for high school students, we decided to offer our virtual program for free, and to make it available to all students who applied to the REACH program, not just those who were selected for admission to the in-person program before it was cancelled. We also wanted to combine live, synchronous program elements that would allow for community building with asynchronous at-home learning resources that participants could explore throughout the week. Of the 90 students who applied to the original REACH program, 75 students indicated that they were interested in participating in the VRP. Therefore, we needed a program that: (1) could accommodate at least 75 students; (2) could be delivered fully online and accessed by students in their own homes; (3) built community between students and researchers; (4) connected students with challenging scientific and engineering content; and (5) allowed students to opt into the asynchronous at-home learning resources based on their interests and available time.

CNT education staff have extensive experience developing curriculum resources related to neuroscience and neural engineering.1,2 We decided to create an innovative program that leveraged existing online learning resources from other organizations packaged with at-home learning resources we would design ourselves. An added strength of our plan was to use our existing connections with affiliated faculty members across engineering departments who we had previously identified as being engaging speakers for pre-college audiences.

Structure of the Online Program

The VRP is a novel five-day online program that we designed in response to these challenges. VRP will be piloted for the first time in July 2020. Each day of the program will focus on a theme, as described in Table 1. The digital tools we will use are described in Table 2. The VRP consists of two major components: synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.

Table 1 Virtual REACH program components.
Table 2 Digital tools used in the virtual REACH program.

Synchronous Program Elements

On the morning of each program day, students will join a Zoom meeting (www.zoom.us) for an approximately 60 min live synchronous presentation from an affiliated CNT faculty member who is an expert in the area related to the theme of the day. Each guest presenter will also be available on Zoom for approximately 30 min of online office hours, allowing VRP participants to join them for informal conversations about their research or college and career pathways. All VRP live sessions will be hosted by Dr. Chudler and Ms. Sadie Frady, a high school science teacher who has participated in previous research programs at the CNT. The participation of an experienced teacher brought to the program expertise in distance learning, classroom management, and age-appropriate discourse strategies.

Asynchronous Program Elements

A collection of at-home learning resources was curated for VRP participants by Drs. Bergsman and Chudler to explore asynchronously. This will allow participants to study topics as deeply as they want at their own pace, although participants will be encouraged to explore relevant resources prior to the daily Zoom presentations. The at-home learning resources are packaged into an interactive digital book through the use of Pressbooks book production software (www.pressbooks.com). The interactive book is available online at https://uw.pressbooks.pub/yspreach2020. One chapter of the book is provided for each of the five days in the program and each chapter contains text, embedded videos, images, links to articles from academic journals and popular press, and activities. Short quizzes are embedded throughout the chapters for participants to assess their own developing knowledge. To build community through shared artifacts, each chapter also directs participants to a daily Padlet (www.padlet.com), a digital bulletin board in which participants can respond to a question by posting text, images, or videos, and can interact by “liking” each other’s posts. All content will be reviewed and approved by VRP program hosts before being posted to the Padlet. Additional features in the digital book include tips on how to read academic journal articles and an interactive glossary of terms.

Software for Remote Learning and Community Building

We chose to implement three digital tools for the VRP: Zoom Meeting, Pressbooks, and Padlet (see Table 2). These applications were chosen based on their ease-of-use and familiarity to program managers and participants, device-neutrality, security features (particularly important when program participants are minors), accessibility features, and because they were available at no cost or through subscriptions held by our university. Zoom Meeting (www.zoom.us) will be used for the live synchronous activities, including presentations and office hours. Pressbooks (www.pressbooks.com) is the application we used to design the interactive digital book featuring at-home learning resources. Padlet (www.padlet.com) is a digital bulletin board application we will use in coordination with the digital book to increase interactivity among program participants.

Considerations for Working with Minors in an Online Environment

Working with minors in a fully online program environment presents different challenges than an in-person program. While designing the VRP, we took care to consider issues of privacy, online safety, and liability. For example, we required parental permission using a form provided by our university that specifically outlined risks associated with online programs and digital platforms. We also ensured that all live Zoom meetings will be hosted by a minimum of two staff members who have been approved by our university’s Office for Youth Programs to work with minors during in-person programs and online environments. These program hosts will also moderate the chat function. Additional security concerns related to the digital tools are explained in Table 2.

Reflection

As we prepare for the start of the VRP, we reflect on the key literature that informed our approach, the program evaluation plan, and the additional benefits offered by this program.

Guiding Literature

The design of the VRP was informed by research findings from the fields of STEM education, engineering education, and the learning sciences. This includes recognizing the “life-wide” learning that occurs both inside and outside of the school system (e.g., at-home learning), and the importance of supporting youth’s development of practice-based identities as scientists and engineers.3 The research literature has demonstrated evidence-based best practices for program design of STEM outreach programs,4,5 such as university-based summer bridge programs, afterschool programs, and summer camps, that provide opportunities for youth to be exposed to a variety of STEM career fields, support their college readiness, and prioritize broadening participation in STEM. In addition, the program was designed to provide opportunities for high school students to engage with scientific and engineering practices, as described in A Framework for K-12 Science Education,6 in which researchers describe the authentic problems they are trying to solve, explain their research process and tools, and discuss the human dimensions and ethical implications of the therapies, treatments, and devices they create.

Program Evaluation

The evaluation protocol for the VRP was modified from our previous in-person program to gather data on how well the program provided high school students knowledge of the field of neural engineering and provided basic preparation for college studies in STEM subjects. The evaluation protocol, which will be administered to students on the last day of the program in an online survey by an external evaluator, will include the following components:

  1. 1.

    Assessment questions to measure the participants’ attitude towards: (1) their virtual learning environment, (2) their satisfaction of the program including social cohesion among students in the program, and (3) how much support and guidance they felt they received.

  2. 2.

    To measure increases in participants’ knowledge, a retrospective pre-test design was applied. Data will be analyzed for means and statistically significant differences and will be compared using a paired-sample t-test. To further delve into student learning, data collected in 2020 will be compared to previous years of the in-person program in order to identify any shifts in knowledge trends.

  3. 3.

    Qualitative and quantitative assessment questions were developed to measure how often participants used the digital book’s elements and what was most helpful to support at-home learning.

Participant Engagement

After each morning presentation, participants will be directed to complete a short, online survey to monitor their attendance. Participants who attend all five sessions and submit all daily surveys will receive a certificate of completion. An open-ended question on the daily survey will ask participants to share something interesting they learned from the presentation, allowing the program moderators to monitor participants’ engagement, developing understandings, and emerging questions.

Benefits of the Program Adaptation

Transforming a program to an online format led to some opportunities that have the potential to benefit students after the COVID-19 pandemic. While there was a large investment in time in creating the new program, especially the digital book, the outcome is that the CNT now has a new program format and a novel learning tool that can be leveraged in different ways. We plan to publish the digital book on our website and submit it to online curriculum repositories, making it widely available to high school students and educators. As part of our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, continuing to offer the program in future summers will allow our organization to reach a larger audience of students than we can accommodate in an in-person program, and will also allow us to expand our reach to students who are located distant to our own community. The absence of a fee also increases accessibility to this summer learning opportunity for families who cannot afford the tuition-based REACH program, for which we offer a limited number of scholarships. Although the VRP will not generate revenue for our organization, it does allow us to foster connections to a large number of high school students who may be eligible to participate in future programs at the CNT and to introduce them to a new field of study.

Other organizations facing the challenge of adapting in-person programs for pre-college audiences to an online environment may benefit from implementing digital tools for delivering content and fostering participant interaction, carefully considering security and privacy issues related to working with minors in an online environment, and developing a plan for monitoring participant engagement and program evaluation.

Availability of Data and Material (Data Transparency)

The digital book that features the asynchronous, at-home learning resources is available at https://uw.pressbooks.pub/yspreach2020/

References

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Acknowledgments

We appreciate the program evaluation support offered by Jill Weber from the Center for Research and Learning. We would like to acknowledge the reviewers of the VRP digital book: Timothy Brown, Sadie Frady, Eran Klein, Chet Moritz, and Rajesh Rao. Special thanks to the presenters of the inaugural VRP session: Rajesh Rao, Chet Moritz, Ishan Dasgupta, and Dave Wolczyk, as well as co-moderator Sadie Frady. We also appreciate the work of Nona Clifton and Janis Wignall in creating the original in-person camp program.

Funding

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant Number EEC-1028725).

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation was performed by KCB and EHC. The first draft of the manuscript was written by KCB and EHC added and edited text in subsequent versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Eric H. Chudler.

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Bergsman, K.C., Chudler, E.H. Adapting a Neural Engineering Summer Camp for High School Students to a Fully Online Experience. Biomed Eng Education 1, 37–42 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43683-020-00011-2

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Keywords

  • Remote learning
  • K-12
  • Summer camp
  • Neural engineering
  • Neuroscience