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Using Online Courses to Break Through Educational Barriers

By Jake Smith

Not everyone goes to a school that offers a full catalogue of STEM courses. And while we’re continually told that STEM offers some of the best career opportunities out there, being able to take the related coursework is a different story altogether. I learned this firsthand at my small school, where just 57 students make up my graduating class for 2024.

I didn’t let this deter me from getting a foothold in the electrical engineering field, which I plan to pursue in college. I wanted to learn how to code, but my school didn’t offer any specialized courses in this area. It did have a partnership with VHS Learning, a nonprofit which offers a full catalogue of online STEM courses—all of which are supported by experienced instructors.

Now, I’d taken self-study type online courses in the past, but this was different. When I signed up for my first honors Java programming class during my junior year, for example, I had instructor support, weekly meetings and a schedule that was flexible enough to accommodate my regular schoolwork, tests and obligations.

That first course went well and now I’m taking Python Programming. That way, when I get to college, I’ll already have a good handle on the coding process and at least two different computer languages. Here are four more reasons why I think more students should be using online courses to break through any educational barriers they may be facing:

  1. Tap into an online support system. My teachers were both very accommodating, especially when it comes to scheduling. In Massachusetts we have a February break that most other states don’t have, but my Python teacher extended my deadlines. That way, I could use the school’s computers for some of my classes.
  2. Curb procrastination. To excel in an online STEM class, you definitely need to be on top of your work. You also have to advocate for yourself and use good time management skills because you have deadlines that have to get done. It taught me a good lesson on how to stay on top of my work and not procrastinate.
  3. Meet people from around the world. Regardless of where you’re based, you can meet people from all over the world by participating in online education. My current Python Programming class includes students from all different time zones, and that helps stoke a more interesting conversation. We used icebreakers and then gave our opinions on topics and listened to feedback on them. We were able to talk to the other students; it was a very cool, interactive setup.
  4. Exposure to interesting events and opportunities. I recently participated in and won Blueprint 2024, a weekend-long learnathon and hackathon that MIT hosts for high school students. I came up with a sensor-enabled smart walker, which was a passion project of mine based on the struggles I’d seen my own grandmother deal with. I also met people from all over the world, made some new friends and took home a $150 Amazon gift card.

I've been wanting to start a passion project for a while, and this gave me the opportunity to do that. The experience itself, plus being able to work with and connect with other people, was just amazing. I feel like the online coding classes really prepared me to tackle the challenge, start coding it, and get a good grasp on how to actually make the sensor-enabled walker work.

To other students that want to fill in the STEM gaps that may exist in their own schools’ curriculums, I’d advise exploring online coursework. Even if you don't want to go to college, you’re still going to have to be able to learn things every day. VHS Learning just makes learning fun and lets students take classes on one or more of our unique interests.

Jake Smith is a senior at Hull High School in Hull, MA.

Read this article in EdTech Digest.