Pandemic Response: GRAD 5144 Students Adapt to Online Learning, Provide Online Resources for Others

This photo shows a computer screen with 17 rectangles on it, each with a person's head and shoulders in the rectangle. All of the people are making faces or holding their hands and arms up. Each has been assigned a partner, and in those partnerships they are mirroring each other's actions.
GRAD 5144 students (and their instructor, taking a photo with her phone: Each student has been assigned a partner, and in those partnerships they are mirroring each other’s actions.

Switching a course that is based on theatre improvisation, discussion, and interaction to an online Zoom format in response to the coronavirus pandemic was challenging for Communicating Science instructor Carrie Kroehler, but committed students made it a pleasure and allowed an unexpected circumstance to become an opportunity to help others.

GRAD 5144, Communicating Science, helps graduate student researchers become more effective at communicating with people outside their disciplines. Using serious games and applied improvisational exercises to help researchers become more personal, direct, spontaneous, and responsive in their communication, the course provides many opportunities for students to practice their communication skills.

When Virginia Tech switched to online teaching after an extended spring break in March, the communicating science course retained some of its original syllabus elements and included new attention to how the science around the coronavirus was being communicated and to how meeting and learning on Zoom changed students’ abilities to connect and collaborate.

An important part of the course is putting into practice everything that’s been learned, which in the past has taken the form of engaging in community outreach. Two sections of the course, which is capped at 18 students, have been offered each semester since spring 2016. In the past, one course section has traveled to the Warm Hearth retirement community on the edge of Blacksburg to give short research presentations to a public audience. The other section has given research presentations to 6th and 7th grade students at Eastern Elementary/Middle School in Giles County.

With Warm Hearth limiting visitors and public schools closed for the rest of the spring, this semester’s 39 GRAD 5144 students turned their communication skills and creativity to the task of creating short videos about their research. The videos, on topics ranging from barrier islands to devices that can take the temperature of cells and from fruit fly brains to the fungal skin diseases of frogs, were made available to the audiences the graduate researchers would have visited in person—and additional audiences as well.

Not all Giles County public school students have access to the internet, but the school provided online resources for those that do—including the Communicating Science class videos. The many community events that take place at the Warm Hearth activities center there had to be canceled because of the pandemic, and the research videos were warmly received.

“So thankful for content like this!” said Warm Hearth Director of Life Enrichment Mardy Baker by email.

Kroehler also made the videos available to the three Virginia Tech-public school liaisons who help coordinate outreach efforts to nearby schools: Julee Farley, Montgomery County Public Schools; Jamie Little, Radford City Schools; and Kim Keith, Floyd County Public Schools.

“I’ll share them with our middle school science and STEM teachers as well as with the career liaisons at the intermediate and high school,” wrote Little. “Thank you for thinking of Radford!”

In addition, Vicki Corbin, assistant Dean for Outreach and Student Engagement in the College of Science, is using the videos made by the Communicating Science graduate students in her college for a virtual summer camp program she is coordinating.

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