Making the Jump from Jurassic to Next-Gen: Facing the Challenges of the New Virtual Landscape in 2020

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

Making the Jump from Jurassic to Next-Gen: Facing the Challenges of the New Virtual Landscape in 2020


Hailey Gilman, SPS Chapter President, Paige Edwards, SPS Chapter Vice President, and Joe Vazquez, Former SPS Chapter Vice President, Randolph College

Michelle Starks, '22, happily greets our Jurassic partners in science. Little Scientist’s intern Paige Edwards, '21, demonstrates how to make a cloud in a jar. The Randolph College Science Festival was never intended to make the jump from physical to virtual event, but when it came to the festival’s survival, our SPS chapter had to make a decision: Evolve—or become extinct.

When the first-year students heard about the annual community outreach event known as SciFest, it sounded too good to be true. Randolph, a small liberal arts college in the mountains of central Virginia, has a student population of about 600. How could this event bring as many as 3,500 people to campus? The obvious answer: inflatable dinosaurs, baby chicks, non-Newtonian fluids, and a Pi Run followed by a lot of pie.

What began as a day event for children in 2005 happily expanded to a week of activities for everyone in 2009. Designed and coordinated by our SPS chapter, SciFest welcomes all participants for activities that educate and inspire future scientists and their parents. Events include a kick-off 3.14-mile Pi Run on March 14th, a keynote speaker (such as origamist and physicist Dr. Robert Lang in 2019), a Women in Science Panel (featuring Randolph alumni), a Scientist Goes to the Movies event, a kids’ Poetry Jam Contest, a Jr. FIRST Lego League expo, and more. The Saturday of the festival, billed as Science Day and Science Day for Little Scientists, we invite 400 3rd to 6th graders and 300 3- to 7-year-olds to participate in science activities. The Sunday of the festival, we welcome our partner Vector Space (Lynchburg, Virginia’s local makerspace) to host the Lynchburg Mini Maker Faire, featuring activities and exhibits for all ages. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no charge, thanks to our sponsors.

During the first half of the 2020 Spring semester, our student interns and faculty volunteers worked hard to organize SciFest and plan engaging activities. Planning was nearly complete when the COVID-19 pandemic moved all academic and community activities from behind the Randolph Red Brick Wall to cyberspace. As students, we have had so much support from our science faculty that it was only natural to adapt as best as we could. That’s how good science makes it from grant to practical application.

In this new virtual landscape, drawing in the middle- and high-school scientists has been more challenging. It's difficult to create activities that are engaging, age appropriate, and not susceptible to poor internet connectivity.

This year, college chickens hatched on a “chick cam” via live feed. Poetry Jam creations became their own live, virtual, interactive medium, with kids submitting videos of themselves reading their original, science-inspired poetry. Science Day’s building challenge became a kitchen-table contest for which students built and submitted videos of their “amusement ride” creations. Science Day for Little Scientists activities were written up with detailed instructions in an activity booklet and demonstrated over several weeks of fun-sized episodes. All materials were posted on the official SciFest website.

We owe our success to the resiliency and adaptability of our students and our chapter advisor, Dr. Peter Sheldon. We’ve been grateful for the opportunities he has enabled for us, such as driving a group of us to the 2019 Physics Congress.

Brown University was the local host of the 2019 Physics Congress. One evening, they invited attendees to their Board Game Cafe, consisting of board games and hot chocolate, and prepared several talks for us. We really liked the idea of a social cafe to bridge the gap between physics- and nonphysics–related majors, and so we adapted it to feature our preferred medium of entertainment—video games. This was a hit in the early spring and transitioned surprisingly well to Zoom. An unexpected benefit is that we can also invite alumni and incoming first-year science students to socialize with us and broaden the SPS community.

It’s been a year with more than a fair share of unexpected challenges, but 2020 has also proven just how resilient our SPS chapter can be. We never intended to give up our on-campus activities, especially SciFest, but we’re working hard to make a new footprint with the knowledge that the only direction is forward.

Attendees enjoy the Newton’s cradle, a past SPS project, during  SciFest Sunday.  SPS physics majors at PhysCon 2019 with advisor Dr. Peter  Sheldon (right). The Randolph College SPS community after enjoying Science Jeopardy. Photos courtesy of Randolph SPS chapter.

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action