Outreach during a global pandemic: The ABRC’s shift to a virtual format

Written by Courtney Price, Education & Outreach Specialist for the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center and the Center for Applied Plant Sciences, Graduate Program Coordinator for the Translational Plant Sciences Graduate Program, The Ohio State University.

Though information about the COVID-19 virus had been percolating in the news for a while, it wasn’t until March of 2020 that the reality of the global pandemic hit home for much of the United States. States were beginning to enact stay-at-home orders, many businesses had to close their doors, scores of people prepared to work remotely, and schools shifted to virtual instruction. On Friday, March 13th I loaded up a box with what I thought I would need and left campus expecting a short stint of working from home. In the coming days, weeks, and months the reality of the situation became clearer. Setting up my home office back in March, I never would have guessed that in ten months’ time I would still be working from home.

I’m a STEM educator who plans and facilitates outreach programs for two plant science centers at The Ohio State University. I’m used to hosting field trips, visiting schools, and participating in community festivals. Trying to navigate outreach while social distancing left me feeing completely lost. How does my work, and the work of my colleagues, translate to a virtual world? How will I reach my audiences? What is the need for virtual plant science programming?  I had the questions, but I didn’t have the answers.

Together with a collaborative network of STEM educators at Ohio State, we slowly began to test the waters of virtual outreach. It started with an interdisciplinary teacher workshop, which grew into bi-weekly STEM education office hours. This effort was followed by a six-day science event facilitated by more than a dozen STEM units across campus, including the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center and the Center for Applied Plant Sciences where I work. These experiences demonstrated that while not always ideal virtual outreach was possible and, in some cases, it provided opportunities to reach new audiences.

It was in this spirit that the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center (ABRC) shifted the focus of its outreach program to developing a set of virtual programs and resources. The ABRC is a global stock center for Arabidopsis seeds, DNA, and related research resources. In addition to its mission of supporting Arabidopsis research, the ABRC has a well established outreach program that in “normal” years reaches upwards of 5,000 people annually. With this new effort, the ABRC is hoping to reach some of its regular audiences while also making connections to new audiences across the globe.

The ABRC’s new virtual outreach initiative includes:

  • A self-guided, behind the scenes tour: Filmed with 360° video technology, this tour showcases the ABRC’s greenhouse, growth chambers, laboratories, storage facilities and robots while providing details about the organization’s mission and day-to-day operations.
  • New teacher resources: ABRC’s popular Play Mendel module has been transformed into a plant-free version suitable for virtual or hybrid instruction. Play Mendel 2.0 is available for download along with a recorded teacher professional development session that highlights the new module.
  • Virtual outreach programs: The ABRC now offers virtual outreach programs facilitated by staff via Zoom. Teachers and community groups can choose from a guided tour or a virtual classroom visit tailored to each group’s interest and curriculum needs.
  • Support for educators: Together with STEM Educators from five other Ohio State units, the ABRC offers bi-weekly STEM Education Office Hours for teachers and informal educators. In addition, schools and districts can book virtual teacher workshops for a deeper dive into how Arabidopsis can be used as a part of K-12 science curriculum.

These programs allow the ABRC to maintain its outreach program throughout the pandemic and will remain as a resource for educators even once it is safe to gather in person again. For more information about the ABRC and its resources be sure to visit the links listed below.

ABRC website – https://abrc.osu.edu/

ABRC general education webpage – https://abrc.osu.edu/educators

ABRC virtual programs & resources webpage – https://abrc.osu.edu/educators/citizen