A winning component of Utah State University College of Science’s Science Unwrapped public outreach program is the collection of volunteer groups at each event, which provide hands-on learning activities following the program’s monthly presentations.
Each Science Unwrapped event, which draws an average of 400 attendees ranging from preschoolers and senior citizens, features a talk by a USU researcher or a visiting scholar. Following the talk, attendees ask questions of the speaker and then head from the Eccles Science Learning Center Emert Auditorium into the atrium, where dozens of learning booths and exhibit await.
For more than 12 years, Science Unwrapped attendees have enjoyed use of microscopes to view aquatic creatures and tools to build rockets, robots and vehicles; watched their hair stand on end with a van der Graff generator, played with gooey oobleck, handled live snakes, spiders and insects; touched actual human and animal bones, played with lasers and mathematics puzzles, splashed in the water with river models and pursued all manner of STEM activities – all the while, conversing with science and engineering students and learning about STEM majors offered at Utah State.
But those lively interchanges came to a screeching halt, as Science Unwrapped prepared for its Fall 2020 series.
“We couldn’t meet in person, so we had to quickly pivot,” says Science Unwrapped chair Greg Podgorski, the College of Science’s associate dean for undergraduate programs and services. “We enlisted help from USU’s Academic Media Production and moved our presentations online.”
The hands-on learning activities? Student and community volunteers quickly moved to video, and soon produced an online library (often with just a mobile phone) of lively, innovative offerings.
Science Unwrapped returns to in-person talks this fall, but for now, the volunteer-led learning activities will remain online.
“In-person activities are all about close, personal interaction and because so many of our guests are younger than age 12, we’ll continue with video learning activities,” Podgorski says. “Each month, we’ll assess conditions to determine whether or not it’s safe and possible to return to the in-person activities.”
Though Science Unwrapped guests and volunteers miss the high energy and fun of in-person activities, Podgorski says the videos offer a wide variety of creative learning.
“We’re very impressed with the resilience and ingenuity of our volunteers and grateful for their efforts,” he says. “Our students, who are dealing with the ongoing stress pandemic conditions place on their academic endeavors, are going above and beyond to provide valuable learning experiences for our community. That’s outstanding service and teamwork.”
Among those volunteers is mechanical and aerospace engineering major Daniella Rivera, who appears in a learning video queued up for Science Unwrapped’s Sept. 17 kick-off talk. Inspired by the upcoming data visualization presentation by USU data scientist Kevin Moon, Rivera came up with a simple, colorful activity to demonstrate how to chart data collected from an experiment.
“I wanted to demonstrate basic STEM tools – charts and graphs – that engineers, scientists and other people use in their daily activities,” says Rivera, who serves as Outreach Vice President for USU’s student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
STEM outreach is important, she says, as it introduces people from many different backgrounds and communities to educational and career opportunities.
“When you look around and no one looks like you, or thinks like you, it creates a sense of exclusion,” Rivera says. “But, I want to showcase that there is a place for you in STEM, no matter your race/ethnicity, gender identity, beliefs or diversity of any kind. And, that a career in STEM in attainable, but we have to open doors to future students for them to be aware of this.”
Biochemistry major Keith Wilson is another Aggie scholar, who regularly creates videos, enlisting fellow students and faculty members to join in his productions, while also drawing on his considerable artistic talents.
Wilson, an aspiring physician whose cartoon creations are featured in The Utah Statesman and on Instagram, uses illustration to explain complex anatomical and biological concepts.
“Drawing is a skill I’ve pursued from a young age and, for me, trying to explain something without drawing it is like tying one hand behind my back,” says Wilson, who serves as president of USU’s Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) chapter and plans to pursue specialties in infectious diseases and public health. “Illustration is a powerful tool for communication.”
STEM outreach is important, he says, for people of every age.
“I benefited from parents, who shared their scientific expertise with me from the time I was a small child,” Wilson says. “I learned you can appreciate the wonder of science a little at a time, and build on that knowledge as you mature. Whether we use video or in-person outreach, or some other means, we can spark interest.”
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science
Associate Dean for Undergraduates, Science Unwrapped Chair
College of Science