Back to online learning: Visiting schools virtually

By Dr Kieran Meaney and Dr Jean Holley

With the ongoing COVID-19 situation, we are limiting our travel around northern NSW to ensure the safety of staff, teachers and students. But this does not mean that students need to miss out on a Voyager experience! With some ingenuity and the right props, we have been able to deliver live, virtual Voyager session to the next generation of scientists in north western NSW. The students and teachers at St John’s Catholic Primary School in Baradine were happy to trial our first virtual Voyager sessions of Plants, Poop and Pollinators, and Creative Chemistry with us. We are happy to report, it was a great success!

These virtual sessions were delivered in lieu of a face-to-face visit, with our facilitators running the sessions here in Armidale. To ensure adequate social distancing, Kieran facilitated Creative Chemistry from our Discovery Lab on campus, while Jean facilitated Plants, Poop and Pollinators from her home office, which was transformed into a bug laboratory for the morning!

With the help of a giant cricket, we started off Plants, Poop and Pollinators with an overview of what an insect actually is. We played a game to explore the roles, both good and bad, that insects can play in the environment, and then students, along with their teachers ventured outside to hunt for insects in their school grounds. Students were armed with a pencil, magnifying glass and paper to record their observations while Jean awaited eagerly to see what discoveries were made. On returning to the classroom, we discussed the critters that we discovered, from bees and butterflies, to slaters and spiders and the students speculated on what jobs they could be doing in the environment: moving pollen around, eating dead things, and supressing garden pests. We finished up the session by exploring insect collections, and with the help of some close-up footage, examined lacewings, ants, butterflies and dung beetles down the microscope. There were many questions, with our resident entomologist out done by the curiosity of the students and having to take some extra tricky questions on notice. Good work to the students of St John’s Catholic Primary School in Baradine for keeping us on our toes!

Then it was time for a little Creative Chemistry, and the topic of the day was molecules. We began by thinking about how water molecules connect together in different ways to give us different states of matter: Solid ice, liquid water, and gassy steam. Familiar now with changing states, we dove right on into the experiments starting off with some Elephants Toothpaste! As the hydrogen peroxide molecules broke down into water and oxygen gas, the mixture erupted into a gigantic ball of very hot bubbly foam. A slightly safer experiment looking at changing states was conducted on the other end of the camera as the students mixed up some bi-carb soda and vinegar in a snap lock bag. With the bag sealed all the gas bubbles created inflated the bag like a balloon! Then it was on to a closer look at everyone’s favourite combination of bi-carb and vinegar, but this time from a pH perspective. Using some colour changing pH indicator we investigated how acidic vinegar is, and how alkaline bi-carb soda is – and what colour you get after mixing them together! From the screams of excitement it is safe to say that everyone had a very enjoyable learning experience.

In the wake of the recent travel restrictions due to COVID-19, we are able to offer your students online, virtual offerings. Teachers will need to organise a few easy to find goodies for the sessions beforehand, ranging from soil samples to craft supplies (depending on the activity), and help us facilitate the activity on the day. Feedback received so far has been extremely positive and we have certainly enjoyed adapting and having fun with this new format of delivery. We look forward to seeing you, either virtually, or face-to-face, soon!