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STEM education

Bringing STEM Education to Refugees During a Pandemic

Around the world, the first half of 2020 contained weeks where the promises of the last decade of Ed-tech: paperless schools, digital learning, automated homework, remote classrooms...

were thrust upon teachers and students. In this blog post, I’d like to share a different experience of a sudden move to online learning, far from a traditional school perspective. I hope that Phoenix Space’s shift to delivering digital learning can be useful or inspirational to others struggling with the new educational reality.


Phoenix Space, a non-profit, started in 2019 to deliver high quality STEM education to young refugees in the Middle East. Young people in these regions are lacking regular schooling, have gaps in their learning from periods of displacement, or do not attend school for economic reasons. Our goal is to give “Skills for tomorrow, inspiration for a lifetime”. Through the inspirational topic of space science, we created a 30-lesson course, the Phoenix Space Program, which would teach skills in arithmetic, algebra, electronics, statistics and physics which would give students a boost in ability, confidence and curiosity. In February 2020 we collaborated with Small Projects Istanbul in Turkey to assemble classes which would be taught by local teachers. Each class would be split between a practical component (creating circuits, programming computers or microcontrollers, calculating trajectories), and a theoretical component.

Only weeks into the start of our courses, the pandemic forced schools to close and community centres were no longer open to receive our students. Faced with the choice of waiting until the pandemic receded, or trying out online learning, we decided to do the latter. In very little time, we had to strip out all the material that wasn’t fit for teaching online, and adapt the material that was left to stand alone. After our first, difficult, online lesson (a thunderstorm on my island in Hong Kong caused my internet connection to cut out, wiping irretrievably the whiteboard with all the carefully prepared diagrams!), the courses carried on. Our courses would be taught by Arabic instructors only, and we would keep them as low-tech as possible. What was important at that moment was that the students stayed in education - the fancier stuff could wait.

Difficulties and successes

Not all the students had access to the internet, and almost none had laptops. The reality is that most of our students would share one phone per household, so we not only  had to find a way to pay for their mobile internet connectivity to ensure their attendance, but also adopt our entire curriculum to smart phone format. 

Previously the students were in classrooms in community centres and universities, now we didn’t know where our students would be joining from. Would they have somewhere quiet to study? Would they have a reliable connection? What other changes to their lives would the pandemic make, and were we expecting too much that they carry on learning as yet another wave of chaos welled up. 

In fact, the students proved their resilience and we have opened up our classes in several new locations since the beginning of the pandemic: two more locations in Turkey, others in Lebanon as well as other online classes with refugee participants from across the globe. Our Phoenix Space Lecture Series draws in students from online networks across the Middle East, and our Phoenix Space Python programming course enrolls refugee and disadvantaged students from Lebanon to Germany to Malawi. The move online showed us how little we had considered what could be achieved remotely, and how capable our students were at learning using even just their phones. It caused us to find new tools to teach, some of which will be reintegrated into any in-person teaching we do in future. We’ve gained valuable experience in organising hosting remote events, asynchronous teaching and the use of online platforms like Kiron and Edmodo.

Every challenge can be transformed to an opportunity. The pandemic pushed us not only to create new programs but to find new creative ways to engage with our students and science. However, the value of live human interaction and physical experiments is irreplaceable and we are already planning on some hybrid model joining both virtual and physical modality to be able to continue to inspire and empower young refugees and local host communities.

LaunchPad Challenge

Phoenix Space has recently launched an academic competition, the LaunchPad Challenge, for any student worldwide between the ages of 15 and 19 to research a problem faced in the development of a permanent Martian settlement, and propose a solution. Entries making it through to the final will be judged by an international team of experts in World Space Week in October. It is open to all students, and Phoenix Space will be supporting their own students to join. This would make an excellent summer project.

Find out more:

Join LaunchPad