In a course catalog at a place that offers as many different classes as UCLA, “Health Disparities and the Environment” might not stand out. But the undergraduates in biology professor Paul Barber’s program have a remarkable and unusual opportunity in this class; they get to do research under the guidance of a senior faculty member in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.
A year-long research course series, the class is composed of sophomore pre-med students from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s designed to support their success in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math and maintain their path to medical school.
When UCLA transitioned to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Barber and his students were faced with a question: how do we continue the research component of the class?
They had been preparing to research food-insecure communities of color in Los Angeles by interviewing people fishing at local piers and testing fish samples for chemical and microbial contaminants. But with the rise of COVID-19 and UCLA’s switch to remote learning, interviewing people in the community became impossible.
The students could easily have put all their research projects on hold until they could return to campus. Instead, they embarked on a new project to research disparities in how they and their peers were adjusting to remote learning.
“The students decided they wanted to develop a survey to understand the experiences of UCLA students during remote instruction and try to understand whether the challenges that they were facing were unique to them,” Barber said.
Soon after UCLA had transitioned to remote learning, the campus launched several initiatives to help students. The Bruin Tech Grant provided laptops, wifi hotspots and tablets to students who needed them. The administrative vice chancellor, UCLA Student Affairs and UCLA Library also published guides to help students stay organized, access digital resources, and manage their health and wellness.
Yet despite UCLA’s efforts to support students as they began learning remotely, the students in Barber’s class knew there were gaps in how they and their peers were managing, and wanted to dive deeper.
“Our students realized that the experience they were having with remote learning was not necessarily the same experience that other students were having,” said Barber, who also directs the Undergraduate Research Center’s Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences, or PEERS.
With the support of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and its Center for Educational Assessment, the Academic Advancement Program, the registrar’s office, and then-Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner, the students created a survey that was distributed to a random sampling of 20 percent of the undergraduate student body.
The survey included questions about student satisfaction with remote learning, technological barriers, ability to focus, student time demands, living situation, added responsibilities, financial issues, food insecurity and other COVID-19 related obstacles.
The results showed that first-generation and underrepresented minority students, as well as STEM students, found the transition to remote learning more difficult than other students.
“One staggering statistic we found was that technology limited the ability to engage in remote instruction for 42% of first-generation and 36.6% of underrepresented minority students,” said Jennifer Narvaez, one of the student researchers who is now a senior majoring in human biology and society. “In addition, STEM students were less satisfied than non-STEM students with remote instruction.”
Student researcher and junior psychobiology major Alison Menjivar said: “All three groups experienced technological challenges such as Wi-Fi problems because they didn’t really have any access to a computer at home, they always relied on the technology at school. And then, this probably interfered with their participation in the classroom. So some people might not have participated in the discussion or they couldn’t attend lecture.”
Barber and the students organized their data in a report that was shared with Turner and others in the UCLA administration, including the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and the COVID-19 continuity task force. Barber said there was “tremendous” interest in the survey’s findings, and while the campus had already enacted initiatives to support students during COVID, simply raising awareness of students’ experiences made a difference.
“Just by understanding the challenges students are facing, it increases faculty empathy for what students are going through,” Barber said. “Having that data and seeing the results is quite sobering. It's made me think a lot more about the welfare of my students and I checked in with them more to see how they're doing.”
The resulting paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.
Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching’s Center for Educational Assessment, said for him the report’s most important takeaway is that challenges faced by underrepresented minority and first-generation students are the result of disparities that existed long before remote learning began.
“Given that feedback from quarterly surveys of our students during COVID remote learning was generally positive minus challenges with feeling a sense of community, this deeper look at different groups was enlightening,” he said.
The Center for the Advancement of Teaching included the survey in their Keep Teaching – Pedagogy resources, which was launched to help faculty adjust to teaching online and includes teaching strategies, digital tools, student perspectives and more. A student panel discussion was also included during CAT’s April 2021 symposium “Teaching at UCLA: Looking Forward with 2020 Vision” to share student perspectives on the challenges, benefits and surprises of remote learning.
Doing research about their own challenges, then presenting that research to campus leaders who have the power to positively influence the students themselves, was a significant opportunity, Barber and the students said. Levis-Fitzgerald pointed out that completing and publishing a research paper in less than a year is also a rare achievement, especially for undergraduates.
“I think the most significant outcome of this paper is that it will be used to influence change at UCLA and help assist professors in making equity-minded decisions to support all UCLA students,” Narvaez said.