Once shelter-in-place orders became mandatory in mid-March, parents across the country were tasked with a new role: homeschool teacher. It’s one thing to take time out from work and help your kids with their algebra or English assignments at the dining room table, but what if your kids were over 2,000 miles away? When Scientist.com’s Meaghan Loy, Category Director, In Vivo Services | Category Management was faced with this problem, she decided to start up her own online STEM classes. She invited fellow employees’ kids to join, and soon thereafter clients and friends’ children were also attending the twice-weekly classes that covered topics ranging from skeletons to the SpaceX launch. After the traditional school year ended, Meaghan was asked by many of the kids (and parents) if she would continue into summer. She excitedly agreed, so I wanted to catch up with her to see how things were going.—Sean Preci
Meaghan Loy, MS, ALAT Category Director, In Vivo Services | Category Management
With a background in the vivarium and animal handling, Meaghan supports in vivo requests on the Scientist.com platform and works with clients and suppliers to refine their Animal Welfare policies and procedures.
SP: What prompted you to begin holding online STEM classes in the first place?
ML: My kids, aged 11 and 9, spend the school year in Wisconsin with their father. Because I live and work in California, it’s difficult for me to help with their schoolwork, especially once quarantine started. I came up with the idea of hosting twice-weekly STEM sessions for them, along with their cousin, as a way to support their learning and stay connected.
SP: What logistics are required to run the classes?
ML: The process usually starts with a question or an idea from one of the kids, or with a current event. For example, one class I wanted to answer the question, “How do seals hold their breath?” while another week I wanted to discuss the SpaceX launch. Once I choose a topic, I start researching and building a slide deck. I also create ‘homework’ for three different age levels and include references. When we hold the class, I record it for kids that missed out and then post it on YouTube. Overall, prepping for the class takes an average of 3-4 hours, then grading and wrap up takes an additional hour.
SP: Who attends your classes?
ML: My kids almost always attend along with their dad, some of their friends and neighbors, lots of coworkers’ kids and also children of some our clients and suppliers that are currently on the platform. Kids and parents frequently invite other neighbors and friends as well, so it’s been super exciting to see it grow. We usually have 12-15 families dial in per class.
SP: How do you scaffold the age gap?
ML: I try to include lots of pictures and avoid a lot of text so that the topic is accessible and interesting for the kids. I approach it in several levels of complexity; for example, I begin by explaining that all animals are related on the tree of life before moving towards phylogeny and similarities between species. Then, I go back and connect the complex idea to the introductory idea. I think it’s been working fairly well. I know that the little kids sometimes only latch on to one or two ideas, which is fine as long as they’re learning something new!
SP: What was you most popular topic so far?
ML: I think our most popular topics have to do with animals. The kids absolutely loved the “Bird is the Word!” series. They enjoyed seeing bird behaviors, learning about their anatomy and seeing many different examples of feather colors and patterns.
SP: What types of activities do you assign?
ML: Activities are divided into three age groups, and each group can choose from a few options. Little kids (ages 2-6) generally draw me a picture of something we learned about or do a coloring page or maze. Bigger kids (7-10) will draw a picture and label important parts, create a comic about the topic or write a few sentences. The middle school kids (11-13) usually have something similar to the big kids but with added complexity or things that require them to make connections between multiple ideas that we’ve covered.
SP: How do you encourage students to complete assigned homework?
ML: I enter the students that have completed the assignment into a drawing. The winner receives a $10 gift card to Amazon.com. I’ve been so lucky to work for a company that supports this project and pays for the rewards! There are quite a few kids who complete the homework every week, and before we do the drawing, we go through all of the assignments. The kids love viewing everyone’s work as well as finding out who wins the drawing.
SP: Do you provide additional resources before, during and after class?
ML: After class, I always send a summary email. I include the slide deck, a link to the YouTube video and highlight the homework raffle winner for the week. I also copy in all of the references and resources from the slide deck into the body of the email so they’re easily accessible. Finally, I include the day’s homework assignment and any announcements, like when new friends have joined us.
SP: What made you decide to continue holding classes through summer?
ML: I was surprised, but I had lots of kids ask if we could keep going. Also, there were some kids who joined at the beginning, but then when their schools got up to speed with virtual learning, they couldn’t attend anymore. Those families were disappointed and asked if there would be summer sessions to attend once the school year was over. I knew I made the correct decision in continuing when at the end of our last lesson, some of the kids let out a big “Noooooo!” when I said we were done for now.
SP: Looking ahead to fall, do you have any plans on growing the classes to include different subject matter other than STEM related topics?
ML: Depending on the way school returns in the fall, I might move classes to weekends and start including more topics. The kids really loved a class I did that was a bit of a science and history mashup called “The Bone Wars,” so
history topics could get added. They would definitely have a science component, though. I might also invite some guest teachers to talk about topics I’m not as familiar with, like programming.
SP: What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
ML: I’ve tutored and taught a fair amount over the years as a volunteer, and my favorite thing has always been seeing the lightbulb go on for someone I’m working with, finding that special thing that allows that individual to understand and engage with the subject matter. The enthusiasm is contagious! Working with kids instead of my peers has been a bit different, but the reactions are even better. I love seeing the wonder on the kids’ faces as possibilities open up to them.