USGS Astrogeology Embraces Virtual STEM Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Throughout the years, the USGS Astrogeology Science Center (ASC) has maintained active Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and outreach programs. Rather than pausing STEM education and outreach activities during this time, the ASC has gone virtual, and adapted the development and delivery of STEM resources to the ‘new normal’ of 2020.

COVID-19 restrictions have transformed how operations are conducted at the ASC, as well as how ASC scientists interact with students, teachers, and the public. “For the safety of employees and visitors alike, we are temporarily closed to the public and our staff is in near maximum telework status until COVID restrictions are lifted,”  Director Justin Hagerty said.

The ASC outreach team has adjusted to the new reality by incorporating new skills, new technologies, and innovative methods to continue delivering high quality educational content and engaging with the public through virtual talks and events. Despite the new challenges, STEM education remains important to ASC members because they are passionate about educating students, sharing knowledge, helping inspire and prepare students for their future, and cultivating enthusiasm for STEM disciplines. 

Skype a Scientist is one of the virtual avenues ASC scientists are using to present STEM-related topics to students across the country during the pandemic. Another outreach option for ASC scientists is to participate in the Flagstaff Festival of Science in-school speaker program, where local scientists and STEM professionals can give virtual presentations throughout the K-12 school year.  Also, the USGS Youth and Education in Science (YES) office coordinates internal funding and internship programs in support of USGS efforts to engage the next generation of scientists and science support staff.

 

 

 

Scientists Using Virtual Outreach

 

 

 

Many ASC scientists and staff have taken part in virtual education and outreach events since March 2020. Among them is Greg Vaughan, who gave a virtual presentation about volcanoes and earthquakes to a class of 25 fourth grade students at St. Edward Elementary School in Waterloo, Iowa, from his home office in Flagstaff, AZ, on October 19th.  Like several other ASC scientists, Dr. Vaughan is listed in the Skype a Scientist database as well as the Flagstaff Festival of Science Speaker’s Bureau, and is eager and willing to share science with interested students. “Before the pandemic, many of my presentations were given in person,” says Vaughan, “but avenues like Skype a Scientist have allowed me to continue my outreach efforts remotely and expand that outreach to broader audiences than before.” 

 

 

 

 

 

'Virtual outreach is something that ASC scientists had already been doing, but with COVID-19 safety restrictions, virtual outreach opportunities have only increased.  And with the extended reach advantages of virtual platforms, scientists expect that these efforts will be an ongoing outreach strategy, even when COVID-19 restrictions are over.'

 

 

Scientists Using Virtual Outreach

 

 

Lauren Edgar is another of ASC’s long-time educators and has participated in the Skype a Scientist program both before, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Edgar has found the transition to a fully virtual setting to be a positive experience and said, “in previous years when I’ve participated in the Skype a Scientist program, I was the only one that was virtual, but now everyone is joining in from their homes. It’s interesting to see how we’re all coping with this virtual learning world right now. It was fun to see some planet-themed virtual backgrounds, and I was impressed by the student’s use of the chat function. In some ways it felt even more engaging in this complete remote learning setup because we are all in the exact same situation.”

Dr. Edgar’s involvement with virtual outreach has continued; she recently spoke with four 7th-grade classes at PUC Lakeview Charter Academy in California on November 4th and 10th through the Skype a Scientist program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scientist Using Virtual Outreach

 

 

Lori Pigue, a USGS Pathways Intern at the ASC and Ph.D. Candidate in Astronomy and Planetary Science at Northern Arizona University, grew up in the Midwest and struggled to find information and opportunities for science careers within the state and surrounding areas. She noted that students who wanted to explore the planetary field couldn’t access experts for questions or mentorship, or even knew planetary science existed. Her experience as a young aspiring planetary scientist have shown her great value in virtual presentations. She said “virtual outreach provides the opportunity to bring the knowledge of unique fields to areas where those fields do not have a strong presence.” Because of this, Pigue is certain that she will continue doing virtual presentations after COVID. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, USGS ASC scientists have found virtual learning to be a positive and rewarding experience, and a wonderful way to support teachers as they navigate new challenges in education. “With schools all over the world engaged in online, virtual learning, it's now easier than ever to make a positive impact on K-12 students and teachers,” said Vaughan.  “K-12 educators need support more than ever, and many of them are eager to find STEM experts to talk to their classes.”

Virtual outreach is something that ASC scientists had already been doing, but with COVID-19 safety restrictions, virtual outreach opportunities have only increased.  And with the extended reach advantages of virtual platforms, scientists expect that these efforts will be an ongoing outreach strategy, even when COVID-19 restrictions are over.