SPS Outreach Adapts to Meet 2020 Challenges

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SPS Outreach Adapts to Meet 2020 Challenges


Jamaya Wilson, SPS Chapter President, and Eboni Collins, SPS Chapter President-Elect, Dillard University

Summer WISHES Takes Hands-On Learning Virtual 

2018 DU WISHES program field trip at NASA. Screenshot of 2020 DU WISHES online summer program. There were 35 online participants using a Zoom platform for daily meetings.

by Jamaya Wilson, SPS Chapter President, and Eboni Collins, SPS Chapter President-Elect, Dillard University

During a typical year of the DU WISHES program, Dillard University’s Women in STEM High School Experience in Summer program, high school students from nearby areas come to campus for an interactive, 14-day STEM experience. Geared toward Black women in 7th–12th grade, DU WISHES is run by physics professor Abdalla Darwish and is funded by an Air Force Office of Scientific Research STEM grant. SPS plays a major role, performing many of the experiments side by side with faculty.

SPS students also promote hands-on activities to ensure that the cohort of female students from underrepresented communities have hands-on-training and learn critical-thinking techniques important for college and the workforce. We use inquiry-based activities with hands-on, minds-on training and exploration to inspire the participants.

When COVID-19 caused many of the wheels of society to stop turning and the majority of outreach programs to be cancelled, we oriented the wheel in a new direction. It wasn’t an easy decision to take DU WISHES online, since the themes of the program are hands-on training, doing science, observing the wow factor, and reasoning through the results. But after a long discussion with the faculty team, a new plan was set.

We came up with experiments that can be done at home, chose an online platform (Zoom), and purchased tablets and materials for participants (whom we call scholars). We also provided free internet access as needed. The teaching team and the program director reworked the program to focus on the participant experience and safety. Despite the challenges, the program was a great success, and the participating scholars made history while staying home.

Closing ceremony for 2019 DU WISHES program. Images courtesy of DU SPS chapter.

A New App for a New Need

by Ujwal Kumar, SPS Chapter President, George Washington University

The world as it stands in 2020 differs drastically from what we have been familiar with for most of our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly all facets of our lives, but we are learning to work with it and past it.

The George Washington University (GW) SPS chapter typically conducts outreach events through our Life Pieces to Masterpieces program, in which we conduct science experiments, lessons, and activities with a nearby elementary school in Washington, DC. However, due to the pandemic, we had to suspend our outreach activities. Instead, we turned our attention to how we could help the world around us in a new way.

Members of GW SPS and GW’s Innovation Lab club brainstormed ideas such as 3D printing personal protective equipment (which was soon done by our Innovation Lab club lead, Sylvain Guiriec) and creating an interface that allowed users to share symptoms with COVID testing sites before arrival.

We chose to focus our efforts on developing a COVID-19 testing site app that enabled users to find the nearest testing sites and drive times. Our outreach chair, Addy Irankunda, led development of the app and spoke to healthcare workers in DC to find out how to help ease the stress on hospitals and healthcare workers. Addy heard that patients typically flood one particular testing site, so we added a wait time feature to our app to alleviate overcrowding at any one testing site.

By way of Zoom calls, we discussed features the app needed, how the user interface should look, and more. Addy coded the app and, by the end, we had a fully developed UI app that was ready for launch to the Apple Store. Our SPS treasurer, Caden Gobat, coded the app for other application stores.

During the initial phase of quarantine, we quickly realized how many of the planned SPS activities could no longer take place. Our goal was to help the society around us during a rather unpredictable and unprecedented time. While this new activity was in line with SPS values, it fell most in line with our personal ethics, and as SPS students, we are proud to have worked together on this useful tool. 

School Supply Drive Goes Virtual

by Shannon Brindle, Margaret Gregory, William H. Mills, and Drake Richmond, SPS Members, University of Mary Washington

In March 2020, a member of UMW’s SPS and OSA chapters started a school supplies drive in which donations of supplies were solicited to benefit an underserved elementary school in Galax, Virginia.

University of Mary Washington SPS members at a fundraiser.

Galax, Virginia, is a hardworking town that has been severely affected by COVID-19; the pandemic has not just threatened the health of its citizens, but unemployment in Galax peaked at 17% during April, compared to 10% unemployment for the entire state during the same period. Inspired by Christmas gift drives hosted by her church in the past, SPS member and president of our Optical Society chapter, Shannon Brindle, decided to hold a school supplies drive to support an elementary school in need. Raised in a small town herself, Brindle has a special place in her heart for families in blue collar communities. Upon investigating Title I schools in Virginia, she reached out to a school in Galax. Serendipitously, she learned the school was preparing to seek donations from their local community.

Current and past members of The George Washington University SPS chapter with SPS Director Brad Conrad. Photos courtesy of SPS National.Brindle’s plans were already in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the outbreak, the traditional tabling component of the drive was cancelled and the operations were shifted to an entirely virtual platform. SPS has been actively marketing the drive online, promoting it to the community and on social media, and setting up an Amazon Wish List for direct supply purchases.

Now, more than ever, outreach efforts from the STEM community can make an impact on already underserved areas. The need for help is greater, as each child needs their own set of supplies—sharing classroom materials poses increased health risks. The need never truly goes away, the drive has no official end, but we are pushing for the bulk of donations to be made prior to the start of the school year.

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