The lockdown disrupted education as teachers, instructors, students, and families had to get used to learning outside of the classroom. There was no how-to guide on how to ensure engaging and accessible education online. The shift has been particularly challenging for construction education as it often relies on an experiential, hands-on curriculum.
However, the past six months have brought new insights, methods, and outcomes to online instruction. Procore’s social impact team has created a variety of classroom content, including plan reading activities and a scavenger hunt using Procore’s BIM Viewer.
In the four-part series entitled, Virtual Construction Education 101, Procore partners and education specialists share their challenges, results, and silver linings of continuing education through the pandemic.
United Way of Santa Barbara County
United Way of Santa Barbara County offers integrated services in three community-identified focus areas—education, financial empowerment, and health. They aim to improve educational outcomes for the county by addressing the achievement gap, summer learning loss, and other education inequities. One of their signature programs is Fun in the Sun, a six-week summer learning program where youth improve their academic, behavioral, and social skills.
Jobsite recently spoke with Melinda Cabrera, Director of Strategic Partnerships at United Way of Santa Barbara County, to discuss the implementation of Fun in the Sun this past summer.
JOBSITE: What in-person activities has United Way offered for students in the past?
Melinda Cabrera: The Fun in the Sun summer learning program has been around since 1997. Every year, we have six sites throughout the county and serve about 350 students and 250 parents. The in-person program had a structured academic morning where the students rotate through literacy, STEM, physical activity, and math every 45 minutes. The afternoons were all about enrichment, through field trips and hands-on experiential learning.
J: Has it been difficult to transition these activities to a virtual environment?
MC: Transitioning Fun in the Sun to a virtual program had a lot of challenges. Some of which we anticipated, and some we didn’t. In a very short period of time, we were conducting a lot of parent outreach, supporting them in learning how to use the program at home. Teachers had to learn a new program and get acclimated to the new virtual environment.
It involved a lot of webinars, and we had never used them before. It was embarrassing.
The budget was the biggest challenge for us. We need to get supplies to kids individually. We had to look strategically at the activities that we could provide and see what was cost-effective. The three main factors were budget, making sure the kids could accomplish the tasks without adult support, and making sure it was fun.
J: How have your students felt about switching to virtual learning opportunities during COVID-19?
MC: Academic gains were a byproduct of this year’s Fun in the Sun. We wanted to focus on that social, emotional, and peer-to-peer engagement to let the kids know there’s a support system out there. We retained a lot of our partners like Procore, who truly have a knack for making connections with kids.
We restructured morning sessions to have students log on and have their Zoom lessons with their program leaders and peers. In the afternoon, we gave them math and physical activity challenges. The kids rose to the occasion, and we got a lot of positive feedback. Some even said they did more physical activity than they would have otherwise. They really loved it.
J: How are you working to be inclusive of students’ home lives and technological capabilities?
MC: Now, more than ever, it’s important to be mindful of how you’re speaking to people and the time that you take to have one-on-one connections. For example, we required everyone to turn on their cameras, but a few of the kids resisted. We used breakout rooms to have one-on-one discussions with some of them to ask what was going on.
It was different for each kid. For instance, one student said he was really embarrassed of his room. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his family and did his Zoom classes sitting in the closet. He didn’t want the other kids to know. There’s a vulnerability when you’re hearing these things.
It inspires us to do even more to support families. That’s just one example of some of the inequities and going virtual brought it all to light.
There were a lot of unanticipated man-hours meetings with parents. We wanted to be able to reach out to them and meet so they felt more comfortable advocating for their children’s needs. Fortunately, we had some extra devices and matched them to the kids who were in most need. Having access to devices, hotspots, and bilingual staff that can make those connections really helped us overcome some of those challenges.
J: What advice would you give to other programs that are having to take on the virtual classroom experience?
MC: Forgive yourself. Take a break. You’re so used to delivering a certain type of program, but you have to be okay knowing that it’s going to be different.
Most importantly, be cognizant of the different situations and home lives of our kids. The support structures may not be there in the home. However, every kid deserves the same type of education and access. It’s a hard responsibility as adults to make sure that’s happening. Be aware of the different barriers, challenges, and resources out there as we approach the virtual environment.
J: Any good learning lessons or stories that have taken place since transitioning over to virtual learning?
MC: There was one mother who had a difficult time getting her son set up and onboarded. By the end of the summer, she told us that her son would have done nothing if it wasn’t for the program. She said he had a tendency of getting in trouble, and she works all day. But knowing that he had somewhere to be, that adults were interacting with him, and that there were kids he was able to make a connection with, was huge. As program director, I felt very honored to be that safe and supportive place for so many kids this summer.
J: What techniques have you implemented to keep students engaged?
MC: Anything interactive is great. The breakout rooms, polling, giving them assignments that they enjoy to bring back the next day to share with their peers. Like having a homework assignment to draw a picture of your favorite animal. The idea that they were coming back the next day to show something that they were excited about helped.
Another thing was having something to look forward to each week. Fridays were fun, silly days filled with Zoom games and Pictionary. The students also got weekly kits full of materials they would need for the activities the following week. As you can imagine, the kids couldn’t wait to see what they were getting in the kits.
The junior high loved the creativity aspect of Procore’s virtual activities. It was new to them, and unlike anything else they’d done in the summer. Although the concepts were high level, they were interactive. Through our partnership, a lot of these things are made possible.
You helped make the connection for that student whose dad works in construction to tell him how cool his job is. To make those eye-opening moments for our students to realize that there’s so much out there for them, we simply can’t do that alone.
J: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
MC: Seeing the kids support each other, even on Zoom. If a student isn’t quite getting something, another will reach out to them and say, “Oh, if you just look at the bottom of the screen and click this.” Just witnessing those connections and their faces light up with a smile.