Without interventions, COVID-19 will burn the bridge for STEM education

The recent death by suicide of LSR mathematics student Aishwarya Reddy is a tragic reminder of how STEM careers are not easily afforded. What are some approaches to change that?
By and | Published on Nov 25, 2020

Selvi (name changed), 21, is pursuing a degree in computer science at the Cauvery College for Women in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. When the lockdown began, the college closed its doors, and so did the juice shop where she works part-time. Selvi is the eldest of three children. Her mother works as a domestic helper, and her father is a bus driver. Few weeks into the lockdown, their income and savings dried up. All five family members found themselves cooped up inside their one-bedroom house with one second-hand Chinese smartphone to share.

“The college had online lectures through the lockdown, but soon the teachers realised many of us are not able to attend because of connectivity and technical issues. So now it is no longer compulsory,” Selvi said. It has been months since she practiced the C++ and Java lessons which are a part of her curriculum. She was to begin learning Python this semester, but that will have to wait until college reopens.

Selvi’s struggle isn’t solitary. There are a combination of factors at the intersection of caste, class and geography that keep Indian students from pursuing higher education and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Experts fear that people from marginalised castes and class backgrounds stand to lose the most.  COVID-19 has exposed many issues which marginalised communities face — from paucity of time, lack of support systems and poor access to digital infrastructure. 

Selvi is among the many who are at this intersection – she is from the Sozhiya Vellalar caste, categorised as “backward” by the state of Tamil Nadu.

Artwork by Jinesh Jain

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 increases the existing disparity in access to education,” said Joby Joseph, Associate Professor, Center for Neural and Cognitive Sciences at University of Hyderabad. Students from economically and socially weaker sections of society are likely to bear the brunt of this disparity, he added. 

“Many working class families had no choice but to buy smartphones so that their children could study. This was a considerable strain on their finances,” said S. Velvizhi, a scientist and director of Fish for All Centre, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Poompuhar, who has mentored several students from fishing communities in Nagapattinam. 

COVID-19 pushed all learners online, but those in rural areas and from poorer families don’t have the appropriate digital infrastructure in place. There has been a dramatic push for online education over the last few months, including in the new National Education Policy, regardless of the fact that nearly 30% Indians do not have access to the Internet. Estimates by a 2019 Pew study found that only 24% respondents had a smartphone, but according to TechArc in 2020 there were over 502 million smartphone users, which is over 77% Indians.

The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) can indicate the structural exclusion of students from amongst marginalised social groups. A study published last year notes that as per the 2007-08 National Sample Survey (NSS) the overall GER in India was 17.31 but it was just 7.74 among people from scheduled tribes (ST), 11.60 among people from scheduled castes (SC) and 14.80 among people from other backward castes (OBC). As students from these communities move through the education system, they face discrimination, abuse and alienation, the International Dalit Solidarity Network (ISDN) has reported. 

Financial constraints followed by engagement in domestic work and other economic activities are cited as some of the primary reasons for lower enrolment rates and higher dropout rates among the scheduled caste groups, data show. 

“Some STEM careers seem far flung for many students because of the gaps in their education,” said Nishant Baghel from Pratham Institute, one of India’s largest non-governmental organisations working towards the provision of quality education. However, with the right digital interventions and educational opportunities, technology can help many break through the barriers.

One of the findings of  University College London’s global anthropological project on uses and consequences of social media found that while resource-rich schools might consider social media as a distraction, students in low-income families often consider social media to be an important source of education.

The digital push in education is a double-edged sword for students from marginalised sections — it can empower them if they are provided access to digital infrastructure and when there are positive interventions (see illustrations at end of article for examples of such interventions), but it can also push others from these same sections out of STEM for a variety of reasons. 

“There needs to be systemic interventions and innovative strategies to ensure science and math concepts are clearly taught to the students,” Velvizhi said. 

Artwork by Jinesh Jain

Online learning alone cannot bring positive outcomes for school students from poorer backgrounds, according to research by the Poverty Action Lab. Digital interventions can help and aid learning through either an in-person or blended learning format, which combines online and offline teaching methods. However, students in online-only courses tend to perform worse than students in in-person-only courses. 

The pandemic has disrupted the existing systems and students aren’t able to cope with the learning. This could lead to an increase in dropout rates along all of  STEM careers paths. 

Uncertain futures

“The world around us is changing fast, but for many students from rural areas it hasn’t changed that much at all,” said Neha Parti from Quest Alliance, a non-profit working with female high school students. According to Neha, students aren’t able to identify the diverse opportunities in STEM fields because they have not been exposed to new developments and opportunities. 

Aarushi Sharma, Director at Pristine Academy and Centre for Excellence at Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, has noticed that this incongruity with the changing world starts at the primary school level. Through the pandemic, Aarushi found her young students, largely first generation learners, struggling to do simple science experiments at home. “If I give them a science experiment that involves a straw, they will not be able to do it. They know what a straw is but you aren’t going to find straws in their homes here in Ballia,” she explained, highlighting that content creators and educators need to be familiar with the different worlds students come from. 

This problem existed before the pandemic too, she said. Some of the learning materials and textbooks have examples of objects that children in primary schools in rural areas have never seen in their life. This can include a dizzying array of things, from pizzas to robotics, creating barriers that come in the way of their STEM learning in later years, she noted. 

Physical infrastructure

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only disrupting the access to education, but also cutting off prospective STEM students from their existing peer groups. Joby from University of Hyderabad pointed out that when students aren’t on campus their educational experience is hampered. Online communication cannot replace the experience and learning that come from interacting with peers and faculty. 

“It is visible in my class,” he said. “Students from well-off families are tuned in with good connection, and others look at us with blank expressions because they are missing out on the lessons.” 

Some of the learning materials and textbooks have examples of objects that children in primary schools in rural areas have never seen in their life. If I give them a science experiment which involves a straw, they will not be able to do it. They know what a straw is but you aren’t going to find straws in their homes here in Ballia.

Selvi’s experience in Tiruchirapalli is the same. Many of her classmates missed a few classes, and fewer students are joining the online classes. Now that establishments are open, Selvi has returned to the juice shop for her part-time job. It’s become harder to concentrate on her classes using the one phone shared by the family in their one-bedroom house. One of her younger siblings received a computer provided under a government scheme, but no one uses it. The laptop is not loaded with any software, and doesn’t seem to fulfil anyone’s educational needs. 

Velvizhi feels younger primary and middle school children will suffer as well. “Educated parents will help their children finish their coursework, but how will first-generation learners cope when schools and colleges go online?” wondered Velvizhi. “Earlier, children were tutored by the school teachers but now have to rely on their parents, who may not be able to help.” Parents working in the informal sector, such as wage labourers and fishing, may find it impossible to stay at home and help the students study. 

“Because of the pandemic, students from downtrodden communities are unable to invest in opportunities and resources, which would offer them social and economic mobility,” explained Munna Sannaki, who is pursuing a doctorate at the Center for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) and running  the Rohith Vemula Science Club at the University of Hyderabad. 

Forming the richest group in India, just 22.3% of the country’s higher caste Hindus own 41% of the country’s total wealth, whereas 7.8% of Hindu Scheduled Tribes own only 3.7%, or the lowest wealth share of the country’s assets, according to a two-year-long joint study by Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.

The study noted that historic patterns of property ownership and education available to the upper caste Hindus have remained unchanged, impacting access to social mobility. This disparity widened for groups from rural areas.  

“It really goes back to the root of the problem; marginality towards the underprivileged has existed for centuries and continues in different forms today,” Munna weighed in. Being forced to compromise on education because of poor digital infrastructure is equivalent to being excluded from the Brahmanical system of education, according to Munna. 

For instance, lack of access to labs and thus an inability to finish research projects are extensions of that system of exclusion. “Many students aren’t able to get good grades or perform well in theory, but lab work and projects are extremely crucial and irreplaceable for a student’s learning,” Joby explained. He pointed out that a majority of students graduating this year have missed out on their lab work, and will find it difficult to get placements or pursue higher education.

Many students aren’t able to get good grades or perform well in theory, but lab work and projects are extremely crucial and irreplaceable for a student’s learning.

Luxury of time

Like Selvi’s teachers in Cauvery College, Joby has asked his students to return for lab work. Colleges have pushed lab-related subjects to the next semester, but there are other systemic issues at play. 

Munna said his peers and students from rural areas and lower castes will be unable to return even though trains and public transport are active again. This is because the campus facilities are open only to senior scholars from science backgrounds. Students staying at home lose out on their education, but visiting the campus is a drain on their finances. 

While access to campuses is partially open in many parts of the country, expenses such as travel, food and lodging have to be borne by the students. “Students from well-off families will rent a room nearby at their own expense, but many others can’t afford that,” Munna said, noting that this inherently favours richer, upper caste and richer students.   

But Joby has observed that the most important resource students from marginalised backgrounds cannot afford is the luxury of time. “Time is precious for them,” he said. With the pandemic disrupting their academic year, many students may be facing the economic and social pressures to take up jobs and drop out. 

Just before the lockdown began in March this year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development told the Parliament that India’s premier educational institutions, the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs),  have not filled their SC and ST quotas at the doctorate level. Nearly 14 out of 23 IITs failed to fill the seats, and many had filled SC seats with OBC candidates, the Ministry revealed. 

Neither Joby nor Munna are surprised. “The admission policies need to account for the situations where these students come from,” Joby said. The experience of marginalisation of Dalit and Bahujan students in higher education is a huge deterrent, and the pandemic will only make it worse. In his experience with students, “their anxiousness about their future and the lack of social support for their vision in STEM careers affects their risk-taking capacities and their long-term choices.”

Some ongoing efforts to tackle these imbalances:

(An infographic by Jinesh Jain and Mahima Jain)

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of sources.

Author Bio: Mahima Jain is an independent journalist covering science, environment and socio-economic issues. She tweets @theplainjain and you can follow her work on Instagram @mahima.a.jain.

Jinesh Jain is a Chennai-based designer pursuing a Masters degree from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. You can follow his work on Instagram @seriouslyjinesh.

Note: This piece is a part of TheLifeofScience.com’s Season 5, which is being supported by a grant from the DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. 

About the author(s)
Mahima Jain

Mahima Jain is an independent journalist covering science, environment and socio-economic issues. She tweets @theplainjain and you can follow her work on Instagram @mahima.a.jain.

Jinesh Jain

inesh Jain is a Chennai-based designer pursuing a Masters degree from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. You can follow his work on Instagram @seriouslyjinesh.

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