Mitigating the Pandemic Effects on Future STEM Workforce

By Mary Wells

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing full and partial lockdowns that swept across Canada and the world have had unprecedented effects on education. Many Canadian high schools shifted to a quadmestered system and alternated in-person and remote learning. This meant students had to learn difficult concepts in math and science at an accelerated pace in semi-isolation without supports from their peers and teachers.

HOW WELL CAN someone learn in this environment and how confident will they be of their skills in math, physics and chemistry at the end of this process?

These are important considerations given high school completion of subjects such as calculus and vectors, Grade 12 physics and Grade 12 chemistry are necessary to be considered for admission into many of our University programs in Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Students have not experienced this crisis equally.

Students living in poverty with limited access to technology and private spaces for learning, rural and remote students with inadequate Internet connectivity and the stress and anxiety experienced by racialized and black students whose families who were more likely to be infected with COVID-19are only a few examples. Female students have also been disproportionately affected.

In many households, female students are expected to shoulder a greater burden related to caregiving and domestic tasks — a workload compounded by the pandemic — which impacts the time they can devote to their studies. This is especially worrying as we consider the current significant underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields, especially in engineering and physics.

Attracting more women to the fields of engineering and physics is essential to maximize innovation, creativity and competitiveness in Canada. Historically, the critical point where the largest number of potential female engineers and physicists are lost occurs in high school, specifically in the physics classroom.

Of all female students who have completed the required Grade 10 Academic Science in Ontario, only about 15% enroll in Grade 12 physics compared to 30% of their male peers. This corresponds to a female participation rate of only 34% in the physics classroom — a trend seen over the past decade. A key consideration has to be the unequal effect the pandemic is having on high school women and how this will affect our future engineering and STEM workforce including its diversity.

How can we help level the playing field considering these inequities and ensure all students, especially women, have an opportunity to become future University students in STEM?

One solution is to offer free tutoring in math and science to high school students to help them succeed with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is exactly what the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering has done through a new initiative called Hive Mind. This program is aimed at Grade 10, 11 and 12 students across Ontario who are struggling in advanced functions, calculus, chemistry and physics — all key subjects required to pursue post-secondary engineering programs.

Hive Mind was launched in February and there is an obvious need. The response has been overwhelmingly positive with over 120 students registered and 350 one-on-one sessions completed — and growing. While available to all high-school students, Hive Mind is being run as part of Waterloo’s Women in Engineering (WiE) program, considering the underrepresentation of women in engineering and the disproportionate negative impact the pandemic is having on female high school students leaving them with less time to focus on their studies.

Another key equity consideration is that many of the over 300 schools contacted about Hive Mind are in rural areas where there are generally fewer extra learning resources offered than in larger cities.

These are anxious times. Despite optimism with soaring vaccination rates and a potential return to normalcy in learning this fall, the lockdowns may return as new variants emerge. Canada needs more engineering-ready students, who represent the diverse communities engineers serve, and particularly, more women in sciences and engineering, to keep the disciplines robust, flourishing and innovative. Proactively putting supports in place can make sure this will happen.

Our response to the pandemic and supports for our students — whether swift and supportive or slow and cynical — will have a broad and lasting impact on our future. Let us shape smart policy to encourage and retain a diverse group of talented young scientists and engineers in our future STEM workforce.

Mary Wells is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo.