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UVa summer bridge programs shrink the virtual learning gap

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UVa Rotunda

Students enjoy time on campus at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

As the world ditches Zoom to return to in-person interaction, the pandemic-inflicted damage is becoming harder to ignore.

That’s why the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering is offering a unique host of multiple summer bridge programs that give incoming first-year students guidance and more tools for success.

UVa’s School of Engineering Summer Bridge Program introduces incoming first-year engineering students to the university with a three-week residency program where first year students take a three-credit calculus course.

Hosted by the Center for Diversity in Engineering, the program supports the orientation, math skills and community support of 25 to 30 scholars from diverse backgrounds like first generation students and people of color who are underrepresented in STEM.

“We noticed that students who do participate in the bridge program do have slightly higher grades in that first calculus class than non-bridge participants,” said James Bland, Director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering.

A report from Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research released earlier this year identifies significant achievement losses among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. For graduating high school seniors in these communities, their struggles multiplied just as many of them were making the transition to college.

Summer bridge programs have become more important in the process of connecting virtual high school students with in-person higher education opportunities since the pandemic changed everything in 2020.

While remote learning created new learning challenges, the reality of a global and life-threatening pandemic made it more difficult for students to focus on the lessons and find community on their computer screens.

When low-income and minority students suffered the most from the pandemic learning gap, the Summer Bridge Program’s focus on the acceptance and empowerment of underserved communities was more important than ever.

In 2020 Summer Bridge went virtual but continued in its role as a transitioning tool for incoming students and even allowed students to stay on Grounds for the final week of the program.

“Students were looking for an opportunity to engage with each other,” Bland said. “We were able to provide them some type of structure and opportunities to get to know people in a space that’s a little bit more intimate and intentional.”

Students can also join the Clark Scholars, a seven- week, eight-credit entry initiative within the School of Engineering. The program has been selecting up to 16 women, racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, first-generation college students and students from rural or densely urban areas for summer cohorts since 2017.

“I think our students have [access] inherent to being in the School of Engineering, and then our program is an extra layer of support with an extra bit of focus,” said Dr. Devin Harris, faculty director of the Clark Scholars Program. “With the Summer Program we have a global experience, we have a business training that they do [and] they have leadership development. There are a whole bunch of pieces to the program, but I think the main thing is a community of people that support them along the way.”

The Clark Scholars Program maintains a 100% graduation rate for all students who remained in the program for all four years of undergraduate studies.

“I think that for first year students it is a good experience to have, especially because you have other people who are minorities in engineering who are all there and willing to help each other out,” said Jordan Fuller, a UVa Clark scholar who started with the program in 2020, after finishing her senior year of high school online. “I still keep in contact with a lot of the people that are in my cohort.”

In the College of Arts and Sciences, STEM students are invited or accepted into Cavalier Online Experiences (CONEX), a completely virtual six-week summer program that gives incoming UVa students an opportunity to prepare for college math courses without the stress of a grade.

CONEX provides participants with online content including videos, virtual chats with other students in the program, mentorship from undergraduate students who take on coaching positions and practice tests to ease the transition into the university.

At the end of the summer, students still have access to all digital CONEX materials throughout their tenure at UVa.

Even students who spent the least time in remote learning during the 2020-21 school year missed the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math learning, according to Thomas Kane of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Summer bridge programs keep students engaged and repair the damage done by virtual learning periods.

“We’re trying to prepare students on two levels,” said Dr. Jim Rolf, CONEX Program Director. “On the math front, for the rigors of the mathematics they’re going to see in their various STEM courses. But then there’s a component of how there are lots of things outside of class that impact our learning in class and how to prepare for those, how to make a good transition.”

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