Two years on: a look back at learning STEM through the screen

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By Sarah Dalton, SciTech Editor

With the academic year coming to a close and university life almost back to normal, Sarah interviews STEM students from across the University to investigate their experiences accessing STEM through a screen

The move to online learning following the announcement of the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020 took a toll on students and staff across the country. The outpouring of increased demands for academic mitigations and a safety-net policy made it very clear that the transition was not a smooth one for many University of Bristol students.

However, due to the need for laboratories and specialised equipment in many science and technology based subjects, many have argued that STEM students faced additional challenges learning online. Epigram spoke to those at the heart of the issue to find out if this was the case.

Many have argued that STEM students faced additional challenges learning online | Epigram/Sarah Dalton

The first thing that very quickly became apparent when speaking to students, was the difference in experiences within STEM departments in their approach to teaching. One third year Anatomy student who has now fully returned to in-person teaching, told Epigram that throughout 2021 ‘I had asynchronous lectures online, but I still had regular practicals in person.’

However, for students from the departments of Maths and Computer Science, ‘everything last year was online […] and my lectures continue to be online now in May 2022.’ Whilst Maths has returned to campus for problem classes and tutorials, reluctance to return to lecture theatres seems to be more common in STEM subjects than the humanities.

One graduating Computer Science student told us that: ‘We never really went back in person. I had maybe two or three drop in sessions in first term of this year that were in person, but all of my lectures were and continue to be videos online’. Both students were also quick to highlight that many of these online lectures take the form of recorded videos from three years ago and were not made for the purpose of distanced learning.

‘Everything last year was online […] and my lectures continue to be online now in May 2022

Not only has the amount of contact and support varied hugely between STEM departments in the last two years, but student responses made it clear that some courses were far more suited to online learning than others. Despite the need for in-person practicals and dissections, the transition in the Anatomy department was reported as fairly smooth as ‘even before the pandemic, my subject had some online learning resources.’

The third-year Anatomy student stated that: ‘I already pretty much only learned from Replay in first year. I would attend in-person lectures before COVID-19 but my notes were often rushed so I would go back and watch Replay. So going from Replay to videos wasn’t that different, and my course is very memorisation based which makes learning online easy.’

A third-year Computer Science student added in a similar vein that: ‘I don’t think I found it that difficult to adjust to online learning, partly because [the shift to online learning] was in the last few weeks of my first year and we’d already learned most of the content.

‘A lot of the practical stuff we do is on computers anyway, so it didn’t make much difference other than having to download some software.’ Whilst this student highlighted the ease with which they were able to learn virtually, this does however raise questions of accessibility for students who are unable to access suitable technology at home.

'The pandemic is the pure reason I have retaken a year'

Accessibility was very clearly a divided issue throughout the University. Multiple students with disabilities that affect their mobility took to social media to express how virtual learning increased their ability to participate and engage with university. And for those who struggled to find housing this academic year due to the large student influx which negatively impacted Bristol’s housing market, ‘it meant that I didn’t have to stress as much about finding somewhere to live in Bristol so quickly.’

However, one student who suffers with ADHD and is currently retaking their first year spoke very differently on the matter of accessibility, stating that ‘The pandemic is the pure reason I have retaken a year.’ The student added: ‘Because of my ADHD, I can’t concentrate on videos for a long period of time, so I ended up just getting really far behind.’

The student, also studying Maths, went on to critique the Department of Maths for their decision to continue delivering lectures asynchronously. ‘We were told by the department that they couldn’t safely accommodate us in lecture theatres because there wasn’t the capacity for the whole year group, but they could have put on two lectures. We’ve ended up with lectures online for the simply fact that it is easier and more convenient for them, not because it is better for us.’

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Whilst some students pointed out that it can be easier to keep up with pre-recorded lectures because they could go at their own pace, overall this belief that online lectures do not benefit students seems to be a shared sentiment among Bristol students.

It remains to be seen how long the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have an after effect on academia, however for final year STEM students graduating this summer, the immense disruption to their degree is undeniable. When asked if they felt that they had received the same knowledge of their degree as expected, third year students responded very clearly that: ‘I feel as if I’ve been teaching myself my degree.’ Others noted that ‘I was more affected by the strikes than I was by the pandemic, but my learning has definitely been affected.’

Featured Image: Epigram/Sarah Dalton


What was your experience learning science and technology through a screen? Let us know...

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