Written by: Carey Schafer, Web Content Developer, USF CMS
Since mid-March life has been about adaptation. Adapting to new learning and work environments. Adapting to virtual happy hours and Zoom calls with not-so-tech-savvy parents. For many of us involved in science outreach and education, this was not a welcome change. However, it is a change that has come with many unexpected benefits.
Since 2018, I have volunteered with an organization called taste of science. As City Coordinator for our chapter, I am in charge of overseeing our efforts to increase science literacy in the St. Petersburg area. Our bread and butter is our ability to host fun, in-person events: bringing scientists and researchers to local breweries and coffee shops to discuss their research in an easy-to-understand way. By making scientists approachable, we hope to break down barriers between science and the public.
Mid-March, we had been gearing up for our biggest event of the year, our April Science Festival. Over the course of a week, we invite nearly 20 scientists to speak on topics ranging from star dust to starfish, and everything in between.
Without in-person events, we were lost. At our first virtual meeting, we held on to a small sliver of hope that this would all soon end, allowing us to resume our in-person programming. But as days stretched to weeks, we realized that we too would have to adjust to this “new normal.”
As an organization, we understood the value and necessity of online events, but lacked something fundamental: the technical expertise required for online science programming. Not only did we need to learn how to use webinar platforms, but we also needed to understand a different outreach landscape.
For Dr. Parmvir Bahia, national director of taste of science, one of the major draws of in-person events “is they allow our audience to participate directly in the experience. Switching to an online format makes it more difficult to create the same energy of our fun in-person events.” We knew creating a similar experience would be challenging when our audience was only a click away from Netflix.
Bahia knew if taste of science was going to succeed, we needed to quickly learn and understand the online outreach space. Prompted by Science Friday, one of the nation’s most well-known science communication outlets, we joined forces with a group of non-profits, including Skype a Scientist and The Story Collider, dedicated to science communication and outreach to form the LiveSci Collective. The goal of the collective, said Bahia, “is to develop best practices for hosting online events to meet the needs of our audiences. We will be sharing what we’ve learned to help other organizations to adapt to this new format and to create a community of practice around online events.”
Making the jump to virtual outreach
Armed with knowledge from our partners and ideas from many virtual brainstorming sessions, taste of science made the jump to the world of virtual outreach. And succeeded. Since March, taste of science teams across the country have hosted six events, and with these events have come a number of unexpected benefits.
At an organizational level, we have seen greater collaboration between chapters and the willingness to try new, innovative ideas. Perhaps the most exciting benefit has been our ability to reach a new audience. Attendance is not only higher for virtual events than it had been for in-person events, but we’re also drawing from a more geographically diverse pool. Whereas attendees for in-person events are limited to those within driving distance, virtual events are open to all with an internet connection and an interest in science. At one virtual event, I chatted with someone from the UK, while listening to a speaker from Greece, all from the comfort of my home in Florida!
Bahia also highlighted the fact that online events increase accessibility. “Finally, this affords us a platform to invite in anyone who may not have been able to attend our in-person events due to illness or disability,” she said.
Our previous reliance on in-person events had in some ways limited the growth of our organization. Forced with no other options, we finally expanded our online programming and found new, creative ways to deliver scientific content. However, the switch to online events does not come without drawbacks. For taste of science, cancelling our April festival means losing our largest source of revenue. In addition, in-person connections are especially important for building our brand and creating a space where people feel comfortable engaging in discussion with scientists.
College of Marine Science’s Education and Outreach Director, Dr. Teresa Greely, echoes a similar sentiment. “Being a perpetual optimist, I see the changes as opportunities to stretch our creativity and talents to provide new resources and learning activities that are meaningful in a virtual environment,” she said. “However, in some cases there is no replacement for in-person interactions.”
This is especially true for USF’s Oceanography Camp for Girls (OCG), Greely said, which relies heavily upon in-person learning and peer-to-peer interactions. As a result of the pandemic, the pre-college program has been postponed for the first time in its nearly 30-year history. This summer, staffers will work to move some of the educational content online, but moving forward, Greely still sees the camp largely functioning around in-person activities.
“There are components of the Oceanography Camp that cannot be easily replicated in a virtual environment. However, we have identified several components of the program that can transition to an online format,” Greely said. “It will be great to develop online resources that can be accessed by new audiences, but the impact and strength of OCG comes from the field trips, research labs, and teaching girls science the way science is accomplished and communicated.”
Despite the challenges of the past few months, science educators across the country have adapted and grown, doing their best to meet the needs of a population stuck at home. For both Greely and Bahia, the lessons learned over the past few months are certain to have long-term impacts on their respective organizations. While the majority of OCG will return to in-person when safe to do so, said Greely, she looks forward to incorporating some new technology and lessons that were developed this summer during its hiatus. As for taste of science, the organization will most likely function as a hybrid model moving forward with a mix of in-person and virtual events.
Bahia said, “Perhaps we will begin to see more events being held outdoors. Maybe we will see the adaptation of more technologies. But for sure I think the way our volunteers have been coming together during this time will help us create more accessible and exciting events, and a more sustainable community.”