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Virtual school

Volunteer presenter April Martinig, a science master’s student, teaches U School participants about squirrels. (Photo: U School)

There isn’t usually a chorus of sad students saying “Noooooo!” on the last day of class, but University of Alberta U School organizer Michaela Mann was thrilled when she heard it last fall.

That reaction to the end of their class showed just how much the youngsters loved the program, despite having to go virtual during the pandemic.

Michaela Mann


“They were so sad that U School wasn’t going to be back the next week, and it showed how much they enjoyed it and that they are finding connections in the programming. And that’s all the more important this year,” said Mann.

The program gives students in Grades 4 to 9 from Edmonton and Indigenous and rural communities in Alberta a week-long exposure to life on campus. It underwent a major shift last spring when COVID-19 made it impossible for kids to explore the U of A in person, as they’ve been doing since it was launched in 2009 by the U of A senate.

Virtual tours and class presentations haven’t dampened the fun kids are having and are, in fact, helping them get through a difficult school year. U School offers them some reason for optimism and a goal for their future, Mann said.

“This has been a hard year which has felt like it’s gone on for a long time. U School offers hope for these students to give them something to keep working towards. We want them to know that there’s this exciting place when they graduate high school, where they can find something that is interesting for them. We’re trying to offer hope for the future.

“Teachers are telling us that their students are struggling more. Forming a sense of community in the classroom is hard because of physical distancing and masks, and there are no field trips or classroom visitors. So U School adds something special to their year,” Mann said.

The program introduces youngsters to life on campus and subject areas like arts, medicine and science, and answers their many questions about university. U School will welcome 600 students for the 2020-21 year, with classes customized to either half or full days.

Retaining a sense of personal connection was the priority as U School shifted online, right down to small details like individual pizzas each graduate could enjoy safely while celebrating virtually together, and creating custom playlists for each class based on their song requests, Mann noted.

“We wanted to create as much as possible what we would have had in-person. We wanted the students to know they’re not alone.”

Concerns voiced by teachers about gaps in physical education brought on by the pandemic were also worked into U School’s virtual shift. Classes now start off with a wellness component delivered by a student intern from the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation.

“We had a great opportunity to expose kids to another field of study – physical education – but also have conversations with them about strategies to enhance their wellness, which was needed this year.”

Each class also features virtual tours of campus given by UAlberta Ambassadors, and presentations on topics including Greek mythology, dental hygiene, sheep ecology, the Canadian Constitution and marine biology with volunteer presenters. Related activities with at-home science kits provided by U School also help boost the students’ interest and brighten their learning day, Mann noted.

U School, despite having to go virtual this year, was a hit with the 22 students in her Grade 5-6 class, said Megan Rennie, a teacher at Edmonton’s Scott Robertson School.

“I was wondering whether being online would have the same impact, but after a virtual tour of campus, almost every one of my students said, ‘I want to go there.’ It’s something that is interesting to them, that they can go to a school where there’s a rock-climbing wall, a swimming pool. And with no field trips at all this year, it was a nice break for them to take the virtual tour.”

Each day of U School opened with a mindfulness activity that saw the youngsters say something self-affirming. “They’d say, ‘I am strong, I am powerful,’ and they really responded to it and truly believed it,” Rennie said. “As a teacher I try to build their confidence, but them saying it to themselves has a different impact than what I can do.”

The children also interviewed some U of A graduates, which gave them an idea of how many different kinds of careers they could have, she added.

“Knowing those options really helped them realize there’s so much more than they think they can do. And even though they’re only in Grade 5 or 6, they now have more knowledge about university than a lot of high-school kids do, and it’s something they’ll continually think about all through junior high and high school.”

Through fundraising efforts, U School also hopes to continue offering programs such as a pen pal initiative created last fall as part of the shift to virtual delivery, which saw students, staff and senate volunteers sending responses to letters from some of the children.

“It gave the students a chance to connect with people at the university, ask them questions and learn more about university. It’s great for relationship-building.”

Taking U School online showed how to potentially improve the program once it returns to in-person delivery, Mann added.

“We realized that maybe the presenters don’t always have to be there in person, which means that we can connect the classes with people who are farther away or even doing research in the field. That gives U School a different flavour.”

Relying on the ongoing support of donors, sponsors and the annual Chancellor’s Cup golf tournament, U School operates at no cost to participating schools. Since its inception, the program has introduced 6,000 Alberta school children to the possibilities of university, and there are more than 200 U School alumni now attending the U of A.

| By Bev Betkowski for Troy Media

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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