When the notice came in March to move teaching online, Joanne Jamie, Associate Professor in Molecular Sciences, and her ‘Engaging the Community in Science’ PACE unit team paused to think hard about how going online may or may not work for them. What value could they salvage from going virtual? What were they to do?
The activities they had undertaken each year as part of PACE had been solidly in-person, practical (and messy) demonstrations and events. Staff and students had travelled to rural and low-SES schools and run events at Redfern Community Centre in national science week as part of the National Indigenous Science Education Program (NISEP – https://nisep.org.au/). Now they had just the Internet.
NISEP is an award-winning (e.g. inaugural Australian Museum Eureka STEM Inclusion award 2019) set of events and outreach initiatives. The work is done in collaboration with Aboriginal Elders and community members, STEM organisations and schools.
Engaging the Community in Science classes and experiences
Working with partners
- The class sessions included training in online STEM delivery with NISEP partners such as Fizzics Education – https://www.fizzicseducation.com.au/.
- Developed eight themed interactive hands-on activities for online delivery in schools (chemistry; physics; mathematics; birdlife; movement science; Indigenous history and artefacts; spears and boomerangs; bush medicines to pharmaceuticals). The mathematics activities were co-developed with the Numeracy Centre’s Carolyn Kennett and movement science co-developed with the Chiropractic Department’s Stephney Whillier and Ashley Wheeler.
- The Indigenous themed activities were co-developed with Indigenous STEM providers who were also provided training by Fizzics Education in online delivery. Uncle Paul Craft (Uncle Boomerang) and Dave Harrington (Stone and Bones) have now taken to digital production and presentation, expanding the scope of their businesses.
- The National Science Week event (The Indigenous Science Experience) also incorporated five Indigenous STEM themed webinars, which the PACE students hosted and moderated. It also involved online sessions with NISEP partners Renee Cawthorne (Macquarie graduate and Wiradjuri woman) on weaving and Modfab 3D Printing – the latter involved primary students designing their own 3D-printed bubble wand using Tinkercad – https://www.tinkercad.com/ – the finished wands were posted out to participants.
Students were hands-on
- The PACE students were involved in developing detailed risk assessment and scripts for the activities and delivery of these activities (live or pre-recorded). Filming of activities was done with Roberto Giunta’s StoryMotive.
- In the lead up to National Science Week in August, things were in flux and there were no guarantees about whether students would be in class or at home. The team sent materials to teachers, carefully curated so as to not overwhelm them. The materials could be used in the classroom or distributed to students to use at home if needed.
- Accordingly, the hands-on activities had to be modified to be safe to use and using readily available materials. This might be using paper rather than liquids or a more viscous non-spill option such as glue over milk. Even the basics like flour presented some problems as panic buying limited availability.
- As part of the outreach, the PACE students worked with the Widening Participation Unit team of Margaret Meehan and Lotus Rana to deliver an event for the InRoads “follow your passion” program to engage with students from rural and regional areas. The PACE students shared the challenges they have overcome on their journeys to university.
- The team of staff and PACE students are reviewing the school activities and considering how to deliver them for different age groups, including with High School students being leaders (as part of NISEP’s leadership model). This is challenged by students being restricted to interacting only with their year-based peers in many schools. So various options are being considered for in-person workshops for different age groups as well as remote sessions. The PACE team are now in final preparation for Live shows across October, with the NISEP partner school students as leaders of the activities and the PACE team facilitating and mentoring remotely.
The students who enrolled in the year-long PACE unit, like many others, did not have the experience they were expecting when they started the year. Although the direct audience connections were lost, there were also gains for students.
- Students were more involved than usual in the design of activities, which had to be re-conceived in full.
- They learnt new presentation and digital production skills. The students missed the opportunities of conducting in-person demos, but learnt about adaptation and acquired new collaboration, design and production skills. Students have reflected that they loved being involved in production and seeing it all come together.
- Some students at first seemed shy and somewhat anxious about being filmed and facilitating or hosting sessions for National Science Week, but, once coached and encouraged – by Roberto Giunta for the filming and Joanne and Ian Jamie for the facilitation, such as hosting webinars for 180 people – they inhabited the roles well.
Over session 2, the students have been critiquing the delivered school sessions towards improvement and how to deliver to different age groups. PACE research students in Molecular Sciences have also interviewed teachers about the in-class science experiences and the PACE students are using this feedback to improve and adapt the activities and their delivery for different audiences. Students have also reviewed Session 1 Molecular Sciences and Medical Sciences first year unit labs, which were quickly moved online during the March two-week preparation time, including a bush medicines laboratory incorporating a virtual yarning circle, a bush tucker garden tour and extraction of medicinal compounds from a customary used plant.
Gains from going online
While Joanne is clear that in-person sessions are the richer and preferred mode of communicating STEM in schools, the move online has highlighted some logistical and access advantages. A session can reach more students in less time. One session for primary students linked four classrooms together simultaneously. In the national science week webinars, families from Alice Springs as well as children in lockdown in Victoria were able to participate in sessions including 3D printing and weaving class, using materials that had been sent to them.
Joanne and the team will be presenting at conferences and writing papers on their experiences. At a recent K-12 science conference, they were able to include Elders from remote communities in presenting to science teachers.
Tools and techniques
The team encountered technical issues since many of the schools are remote with unreliable Internet speeds. Our own Internet access on campus could also at times be variable. This made preparation and delivery stressful.
Beaming into primary schools has been usefully facilitated by the presence of smartboards in the classroom. As these are one-way without inbuilt cameras and mics, laptops are set up in the class to facilitate audience reactions and communications.
For the sessions with schools, the team were grateful for the use of a Macquarie International studio set up for synchronous communications – offering lighting and camera setup and monitors that showed the audience view, and especially thank Elizabeth Abraham and Tim Hyde for their support.
There were some video recordings of previous demonstrations that they could use, but they also needed to create new resources. The team created pre-recorded videos of demonstrations and used these within live sessions, in coordination with sets of materials sent out to schools with instructions. As mentioned above, they had to reconsider the sorts of materials and mess that their demonstrations usually required and revised them to make them more student-friendly.
The Macquarie PACE students acted as moderators and facilitators in the large public seminars. The team used Slack as a real-time communication channel by copy/pasting audience questions from Zoom into the Slack channel, discussing and deciding on answers there before pasting the questions and answers in a Google Doc that the seminar host referenced during the session. One student also helpfully deleted questions from the Google Doc as they were answered, to keep the host aware of what was left to answer. They found this system to work very well, especially as the Q&A and chat functions in Zoom are difficult to manage for large numbers of people.
The ConocoPhillips science experience is run annually at Macquarie University for students from years 9 and 10. It is unclear under what circumstances it will go ahead in 2021, but Joanne and the team seem equal to anything.
Natalie Spence, from an interview with Joanne Jamie