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Bringing Science to You: Science on Wheels Goes Virtual

Science on Wheels reimagines events to engage Missourians while staying safe during the ongoing pandemic.

by  Madalynn Owens

What does a scientist look like? Many people picture a person in a white lab coat looking into a microscope or someone pouring colored liquid into a beaker. Science on Wheels aims to change that. Science on Wheels focuses on introducing Missourians to local scientists through engaging presentations and casual discussion panels. The program is entirely run by graduate students at the University of Missouri.

The organization presented to over 300 members of the community at Clark County Extension Council’s Farm/City Night on March 7, 2020. The audience was composed of mostly families and older generations that were able to engage in an interactive DNA extraction presentation.

“After several years of trying to bring Science on Wheels to Clark County, we made it happen just before COVID hit,” Katie Hogan, Community Engagement Specialist in 4-H Youth Development said.

Attendees of all ages hand mashed ripe strawberries mixed with dish detergent and water until it resembled a fizzy, pink pulp. This process breaks open the cells and makes the strawberry’s DNA easier to isolate. The mixture is then poured through a filter into a plastic cup to separate the liquid mixture from the solid pulp of the strawberry. Chilled rubbing alcohol is then poured into the plastic cup to cause the strawberry’s DNA to float to the top in a white, bubbly film which could be plucked out with a pair of tweezers.

“My goal in bringing Science on Wheels was to help my community see the great things going on at the University of Missouri and to connect average citizens with a ‘real’ scientist,” Katie said.

Participants enjoyed being able to be a part of a unique and easy science experiment in their hometown. The DNA extraction booth was run by two graduate students who were there to guide the community members and explain the science behind the process. Later in the evening, the students explained their current research and took questions from the audience.

“It was great to show that even being a good distance from campus that the resources of the University are available,” Katie said.

Moving Forward in a Virtual Community

Even though the pandemic has postponed or canceled events similar to Farm/City Night for the majority of 2020 and 2021, Science on Wheels has been adapting to a virtual format. The organization has put in-person events on hold during the pandemic and begun to work with the Daniel Boone Regional Library and Columbia Public Schools to create engaging virtual presentations. Zack Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences, is the Executive Chair for Science on Wheels. Zack has been working with other members of the executive board to keep the program entertaining while providing professional development for scientists.

“The goal of the organization is to create an actual dialogue between scientists and nonscientists,” Zack said. “Simultaneously, we’re trying to train scientists to be better public speakers.”

Science on Wheels has hosted almost 30 events in 19 counties across Missouri since it was founded in 2017. Since Science on Wheels is volunteer-based, the speakers for each event vary. Usually, it’s whoever has free time that day. The executive board works with the community or organization requesting presentations and then asks which graduate students are available to travel and present at the event.

“Everything that we are doing is extracurricular,” Zack said. “Our speakers volunteer to be a part of this organization because we are all passionate about trying to share science to the public.”

Often, the scientists present their research or explain their specialty area for 5 minutes, before opening the floor to questions from the participants. Many of the speakers bring models, diagrams, or other visual aids to explain their area of expertise.

“There’s obviously a big disconnect between scientists of all sorts and the general public so we’re trying to deliver it in a personable way that is less intimidating for the general public,” Zack said.

Finding a New Audience

With the switch to virtual presentations, Science on Wheels is learning how to be entertaining and accessible through a screen to their target populations.

“What we quickly found out was that the kinds of places we were traveling to in-person were the slowest places to adapt to online meetings, like a nursing home doesn’t have a setup for everybody to Zoom in easily and ask questions,” Zack said.

This led Zack to look for organizations and community centers that are ahead of the curve on technology. This led to two virtual events with the Daniel Boone Regional Library (DBRL). Both events had six presenters, all with different expertise, talking about their research ranging from birds and bees to bacterial cells and bones. The first event, on November 5, focused more on biological sciences and animals, while the second event, on March 4, covered mostly biomedical fields. The recording of the second event will be available for viewing on DBRL’s Youtube channel until April 5.

Sarah Howard, the Youth and Community Services Manager for DBRL was thrilled with the events. Participants were attending the meeting in real-time that were able to ask questions and discuss with the graduate students. The library also posted the recorded meeting to their website, where others have viewed it, including a couple of science classes.

“We look forward to the day we can host Science on Wheels in person,” Sarah said. “With bite-sized presentations, Science on Wheels can inspire someone to check out materials and learn more about their world. It also may inspire younger folks to choose a science path for their profession.”

Science on Wheels is evolving into focusing more on science education for elementary and middle school students because of how quickly they were able to adapt to virtual and hybrid learning environments. The National Science Foundation has developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are checkpoints that teachers need to meet to keep students

on track with science education. Science on Wheels wants to shift their presentations so that they can assist teachers in teaching their students about the content on the list.

“We hope that it can become more of our speakers adding to their lesson plans rather than just giving them information about a cool science field that might not be relevant to the student at that time,” Zack said. “If they’re trying to study sound waves and we come in to talk about cell communication, it doesn’t quite match up.”

Zack is working with the executive board to figure out what NGSS content the graduate students can talk about, so they can update their training modules accordingly. Currently, the training which extensively covers best practices for science outreach, effective presentations, storytelling, and general tips from past speakers is being updated to include resources for effective virtual presentations.

“With this approach, we can establish strong partnerships with schools and we have the potential to be a long-lasting organization at Mizzou,” Zack said. “When the pandemic ends, we can continue traveling to places, including schools, and also to places that didn’t end up getting a strong online presence during the pandemic.”

Envisioning the Future of Science Outreach

Typically, graduate students learn about Science on Wheels through word of mouth. Many speakers that join Science on Wheels learned about it from past or current speakers who are also passionate about science outreach. Sarah Clements, a Graduate Student in the School of Natural Resources, and the organization’s Funding Officer, learned about Science on Wheels from her peers.

“The work of Science on Wheels to bring science outreach to communities that are often overlooked in outreach efforts aligned with my goals for sharing science with the community,” Sarah said.

Unlike the past, the new, larger executive board has representation from different departments, not just the biological sciences department. This helps amplify the mission of Science on Wheels throughout the graduate student community at the University. The executive board has been working with Zack to make Science on Wheels a diverse and long-lasting organization on campus.

“We’re trying to show just how diverse scientists are,” Zack said. “We’re trying to elevate the students that are here at the University, which is a really diverse group already, and get them involved with speaking to the public about their work.”

Many members of the organization agree that while the switch to virtual presentations isn’t ideal, it has provided valuable learning experiences.

“I’d like to see us continue coming up with creative ways to reach people with virtual events, and hopefully learn things from doing, so that will also help us improve when we are able to do in-person events again,” Sarah said.

The executive board is also working on bringing science outreach to rural demographics and diverse organizations. Zack is working to hold an event at Centro Latino de Salud, a Latino community center in Columbia. He has also been talking with teachers in rural school districts throughout Missouri to create lasting impacts on populations that don’t have the same access to auxiliary science education as the students at Columbia Public Schools.

“I wanted to step in with Science on Wheels because I think it’s a great organization,” Zack said. “I want to see it exist and become a successful long-term organization, so we’re all trying to do what we can to make connections and partnerships to keep it alive.”