Virtual Lunchroom, Innovating Ways to Connect!

As we entered a period of uncertainty and imminent quarantine due to COVID-19 at Project Exploration (PE), we took it as an opportunity to innovate and continue to provide opportunities to youth underrepresented in the STEM field. We quickly realized that compared to in-person programs, there are limitations to creating meaningful relationships with students in the virtual space. This is why we decided to create a space for our young people to express their concerns and feelings while developing their STEM identity. From this desire, the idea of a virtual lunchroom was born.

The mission of PE’s Virtual Lunchroom is to engage students in meaningful conversations with caring adult mentors around social-emotional issues, character education, and STEM, which are tailored to help students succeed academically and emotionally. These sessions are also intended to provide a safe space to share interests, especially as it pertains to PE programming.

Students had the chance to meet with mentors, STEM professionals, and staff for one hour, twice a week. While eating their lunch and seeing peers’ students were able to talk about goal setting, respect, social justice, citizenship, leadership, entrepreneurship, and other topics. They were also allowed to be themselves, share their hobbies, play games and have fun with their friends. Furthermore, Virtual Lunchroom became a space for volunteers and partners to bring important topics to our youth. They learned about environmentalism, financial literacy and participated in virtual field trips. They also got creative, worked on projects that were meaningful to them. A memorable experience was having the 5-8 girls make clothing out of recyclable materials and presenting their designs with a fashion show.

During Virtual Lunchroom, we learned more about the needs of our young people. We saw our youth develop and open up more to conversations. We discovered their interests and personalities, creating meaningful mentoring relationships. Also, we touched on issues relevant to them, like their anxieties amid the social and health crisis we are experiencing. As mentors, we discovered that our young people have a social conscience and clear ideas of how they can contribute to society. We hope that this space and the relationships created during this time will become a regular practice among our youth, facilitators, and the entire Project Exploration team.

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