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Chemistry GSA Launches Virtual Scientist Initiative

5 February 2021
Virtual Scientist
 Evan Burke, first year graduate student, makes ice cream from salt and ice

Education has changed massively over the past year, forcing many grade school students to learn and study virtually from home. While online learning can be a positive experience, it also poses a unique set of challenges for many students. That’s why the Penn State Chemistry Graduate Student Association (GSA) decided to develop easy ways to learn science at home through their Virtual Scientist Initiative, a program that provides educational resources to parents and teachers.

The idea of the Virtual Scientist Initiative was born in March 2020, after the GSA was forced to cancel its in-person outreach activities for the spring semester. This change led them to turn their focus to virtual outreach opportunities. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, GSA Chairman of Community Outreach Sonic Cheon and GSA member Kayla Gentile decided to develop a live-webinar series that was targeted at the parents of young scientists. “We wanted to create a program that was more unique and felt personal to the viewers,” Cheon explains, speaking about his motivation for creating the program.

This idea eventually became the Virtual Scientist Initiative, a webinar series that teaches parents how to perform science demonstrations at home and explains the science behind these demonstrations. “Our hope is to help our community and connect enthusiastic graduate students to bright young minds in the local community,” explains Cheon, “...We wanted to help parents and teachers who are unfamiliar with science or feel not as comfortable running a science demo to learn simple demos from us and run them at home with the kids.” 

In preparation for the webinars, Cheon and Gentile conducted multiple test webinars with friends and family as well as with local parents. They received an enthusiastic response to these test webinars. Although attendance at later webinars was relatively low, the GSA organizers enjoyed engaging with the audience and answering their many great questions. “The interaction we have with the audience is one of the things that makes our program great,” Cheon added.

Aside from helping parents and children, the Virtual Scientist Initiative also gave graduate students an opportunity for professional development and a chance to learn new skill sets. GSA members who participated in the Virtual Scientist Initiative took turns preparing different parts of the event, allowing each student to learn new skills. Organizers split the work for each Virtual Scientist session into four roles: A presenter who is responsible for writing the procedure for the demonstration and the script for the webinar; a support scientist who is responsible for learning all the science related to the demo and for helping to develop the demo alongside the presenter; an advertiser who is responsible for maintaining a social media presence and sending out emails to schools, daycares, listservs, newsletters, and any other outlets; and a  graphic artist who is responsible for creating the various graphics that are used during the demo and for advertisement. 

“Although many of these experiences don’t directly help us in research, I’m confident that these experiences will be valuable in becoming an effective scientist,” Cheon noted, “...I’m very happy with what we have created so far and extremely proud and thankful for my team.” Each of these four roles offered students opportunities to research topics they wouldn’t ordinarily study, hone communication skills, and learn to use different types of software, including graphic design programs. 

The GSA plans to continue the Virtual Scientist Initiative this semester and hopes to continue to develop new virtual outreach programs during this challenging time. You can learn more about the Virtual Scientist Initiative by visiting the Chemistry GSA website.