Voyaging into Cyberspace

By Kieran Meaney, UNE Discovery

How we deliver science when we can’t visit schools

We all know that 2020 and 2021 have not been normal years. Even though there have been normal times, the shadow of the pandemic has never been far away. Keeping people safe has meant limiting physical contact and close proximity to others. When your whole job description was to go out to schools and give students science to play with, it’s a dramatic change when you have to go online.

The biggest difference we found was when students ask their questions. In a classroom it is easy to gesture towards someone to ask what their question is. The same motion does not carry the same accuracy on the screen. Fortunately, the wonderful teachers are able to help direct questions towards the microphone or drop them into the chat window in Zoom. In some cases, since our sound has to be played loud for the whole class to hear, we encounter feedback noise coming through and the school microphone needs to be muted. This often leads to us watching the class carefully to try and see their reactions, rather than hear them. Wild gestures of thumbs up or thumbs down when trying to guess the outcome of an experiment have become commonplace. We try and see this as a fantastic opportunity to practise communicating in different ways to normal.

We also contend with having to adapt our activities to a mostly indoor space. It is certainly more challenging to fit the solar system inside a classroom than on a sports field. Searching for insects outside in the garden is made that little more challenging when the scientist is trapped inside on the screen.

But while there have been some necessary challenges adjusting to the online realm, there have been many bonuses as well. An elephant’s toothpaste reaction can look even more impressive when filmed up close and projected on a big screen. The class can share the same experience voyaging down a microscope lens together to investigate insect anatomy. Close up and shared microscope viewings are hard to do in person for practical reasons, but virtual visits give us the opportunity to explore these together in a way we couldn’t before.

The real stars of the show are the teachers on the ground in the classroom. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to visit at all. In many cases they are able to coordinate with us to prepare activities that we can then lead the class through from a distance, maintaining Voyager’s play-based approach as much as we can. Creative chemistry is still proving to be one of our most popular activities in the virtual realm, which would not be possible without the help of the amazing teachers who take a quick trip to the supermarket. Most people are familiar with the bicarb soda and vinegar reaction. But what about if it was inside a zip-lock bag? Simple and safe experiments like this are still wonderful and fun teaching moments, made all the more intriguing by your friendly neighbourhood scientists explaining exactly what is going on!

While we look forward to getting back into classrooms and face-to-face visits, virtual visits are providing us with a multitude of novel teaching experiences that we might otherwise miss out on. One thing that has definitely not changed during the pandemic is the looks of amazement and wonder we see on students’ faces as we open their eyes to the science everywhere in the world around us. I expect nothing will ever change that.