Outreach from afar: successful socially distanced science programming

Open Labs volunteers engaged in a science demonstration with local students at our 2018 Science Cafe (Photo Credit: Diondra Dilworth)
Open Labs volunteers engaged in a science demonstration with local students at our 2018 Science Cafe (Photo Credit: Diondra Dilworth)

In mid-March, Connecticut locked down to limit the spread of COVID-19. School closures forced parents to juggle working from home with childcare. As graduate students dedicated to science outreach for underserved students in New Haven, we saw a chance to leverage our skills and experience to provide virtual educational opportunities for them. We’d already lined up speakers and poster presenters for in-person outreach events that were canceled due to the lockdown, so we just had to figure out how to transform these talks for a virtual audience.

We created a weekly online series called Exploring Science to present our research to middle school students. Exploring Science is a collaboration between two Yale University graduate student groups: Yale Open Labs, which hosts hands-on demonstrations and engaging science talks, and the Flipped Science Fair, which was featured in an earlier post. We both work closely with Pathways to Science, a science engagement program for Greater New Haven Public School students, to reach local students, so we were able to hit the ground running repurposing presentations for middle schoolers over Zoom. Over the last three months of Exploring Science, we’ve drawn over 360 unique students and more than 89% of our students over the last three weeks were repeat attendees. In this post, we aim to help others interested in virtual science outreach by sharing lessons we learned while adapting our existing programming to meet students’ needs in our current era of social distancing.

Our team on Zoom just before one of our virtual events.

Identify your strengths

When brainstorming what form our virtual outreach should take, we started with our strengths. Since we’ve been hosting outreach events for years, we have a track record of distilling complicated research into fun and engaging presentations. (If your group is newer to this type of work, it might be helpful to refer to established resources.) We’d already been using Zoom for classes and meetings, so we were well acquainted with the software. Our ongoing partnership with Pathways to Science gave us access to local students who were interested in science programming. We had the content and a receptive audience but needed to figure out how best to cater to our future attendees.

Assess your audience

Even if you know your audience well, their needs change when it comes to online events. One of our guiding principles is to meet people where they are. Before the shutdown, this meant partnering with neighborhood leaders to bring our content to local communities, instead of making them come to campus. But how does that translate to virtual events? We no longer had to coordinate transportation or venues, but new issues arose. Here’s how we adapted to meet our virtual audience:

Internet access: Connectivity barriers were a concern for us since we’re interested in engaging local New Haven Public School students and prioritizing students that are historically underrepresented in STEM. While school was in session, students were able to borrow Chromebooks, which became available to every student in grades 3-12. There are still connectivity issues, but the city is committed to resolving them. We didn’t have much control over this component, but we thought it was a workable situation.

Scheduling: We reached out to our partners at Pathways to Science to determine the ideal time to engage students. They suggested weekday afternoons, which would give parents a midday break and wouldn’t interrupt classes since teachers had shifted to asynchronous instruction.

Format: We struggled with how to balance the reach of a large event with the impact of a smaller, more personal format. We decided on a recurring, hybrid structure, where we could feasibly engage 100 students and break out into smaller groups for discussions. To avoid Zoom fatigue, we limited the entire event to one hour consisting of two 15-minute presentations separated by a breakout session.

Graduate student Malena Rice talked about her research on exoplanets during our Week 9 event.

Keep adapting

When you’re running a recurring event like Exploring Science, you don’t need to figure out everything before your first session. Since our first event in May, we’ve been constantly evaluating each aspect of our program and adapting to better serve our students. We started with speakers presenting posters they had designed for the Flipped Science Fair but soon realized that this format didn’t translate well to Zoom. We also noticed that many students were hesitant to speak up in breakout rooms, so we provided guidance to our volunteers on how to prompt more engaging discussions. We’ve successfully increased participation by suggesting that the volunteers lead by example: Talking about their own backgrounds in science and sharing thoughts they had about the presentation encouraged students to do the same. We started out uploading recordings of each session to our Youtube channel, but soon realized that we’d build awareness better with our own webpage, which allows us to advertise future events and promote our videos in the same space. We also were able to leverage the Board of Education’s new text message system to directly advertise to parents, which increased our local student attendance five-fold.

Our attendance data shows the spike in attendance from New Haven Public School students after we started using the text message system before Week 6.

Get feedback

An essential component that allows us to evolve is audience feedback. We initially sent out surveys after every event with detailed questions. However, the response rate was low, so we switched to live questions using Zoom’s polling feature. This restricted the question format but quadrupled the number of responses, so we ultimately decided that it was a worthwhile trade-off. Overall, we’ve learned the importance of evaluating exactly what kind of data you need to improve your event and only asking the questions that provide useful data. We also recommend monitoring audience demographics to make sure you continue serving the people you intend to. Our goal is to engage underserved students in New Haven, so we’re constantly evaluating our attendee list and advertising strategies to ensure that we reach those students.

Graduate student Grace Swaim discussed how she uses fluorescent worms to study human diseases during Week 3.


Here are our steps for organizing successful virtual outreach:

  1. Identify your strengths.
  2. Assess your audience and determine how to reach them virtually.
  3. Decide on your format and get started, but leave room to adapt.
  4. Continuously self-evaluate with audience feedback to make sure that you’re meeting your goals.

About the Author:

Alexa Soares is a Neuroscience PhD student in the Picciotto Lab at Yale University, where she is studying the roles of acetylcholine and norepinephrine in stress. Previously, she attended Northeastern University, where she studied redox dysregulation following early life adversity and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Neuroscience. Find her on twitter @AlexaRSoares
Rick Crouse is the founder and chair of the Flipped Science Fair. He is also a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale University. He studies the effect of acetylcholine signaling in the basolateral amygdala during appetitive learning. He earned a bachelor’s of science in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of South Florida where he researched in vitro primary brain and liver cell cultures. Find him on Twitter @RichardBCrouse