Moving science events online during Covid-19
Months out from Australian National Science Week 2020, it became clear that our nine-day celebration of Stem was going to look quite different. In Sydney, we swapped hopping between physical events across the city for ‘Zooming’ into events across the country.
Perhaps naively, we thought that National Science Week 2021 would return to a more familiar format. But as cases of the Delta variant began to rise, the pivot to online began in earnest.
Two postgraduate students in our research team, the science communication, outreach, participation and education (Scope) group at the University of Sydney, led an evaluation of National Science Week in 2020, with a particular focus on the online experience for both audience and presenters. Olivia McRae and Ellie Downing found, to my surprise, that for over 80% of audience respondents the online format had positively influenced their decision to attend.
‘One of the biggest benefits that came through in our research is the flexibility for audiences,’ says McRae. ‘Digital experiences allow audiences to choose how and when they engage with online content.’ In addition to flexibility, convenience and the ability to join events without travelling were commonly cited as benefits for those attending online.
While I certainly miss the buzz of in-person Science Week events, particularly the energy and joy I get from physical audiences, and the opportunities to meet science communicators from across my home state, it has been exciting to see presenters try out new ways to share science. Some chose to adapt talks or presentations for online settings; some reached for established media – (in Live From The Lab for example, we partnered with a community radio station to reach audiences in their homes); and others creatively reached for digital-first formats.
Michael Kasumovic is an associate professor at the University of New South Wales and director of Arludo, a company breaking new ground in school Stem education through gamification. In addition to learning activities in classrooms, Kasumovic and co-host Sophie Calabretto are bringing science to the online gaming platform Twitch. In their Battery Low events, guest scientists join Kasumovic and Calabretto to play video games while Twitch users watch on and listen to them chatting about science.
‘The interesting thing about video games is they often deal with a lot of scientific topics,’ explains Kasumovic. ‘Why do people cooperate? Why do some people differ in their ability to remember certain things? And to me, those are all topics that we can kind of do for a show. We could pick a game and bring some scientists in and talk about their science and how it’s kind of represented in this game.’
Battery Low’s audience numbers are staggering. With a record of 25,000 total audience visits during one of their shows, numbers are consistently high, though viewers tend to pop in and out of the stream. This doesn’t worry Kasumovic.
‘At the end of the day, what I’m really happy with is that people stick around for the time that they do and they’re part of a conversation,’ he says. ‘And then you have these people ask us stuff and we’re answering their questions, so you have that level of interactivity, which is really nice and you’re reaching a wide, wide variety of individuals across Australia, potentially even the world.’
Kasumovic credits the online switch for teaching and outreach in response to Covid-19 for accelerating their success. ‘I knew what we were doing was unique and I saw how kids responded to it when I could interact with them, but as a general rule, people weren’t buying into the concept and I couldn’t figure out why,’ he says. ‘Then you know, Covid hits and you had no other choice than to go online and change everything about what you do. It made us refocus.’
The opportunity to rethink has clearly been embraced by many science communicators the world over. And indeed, the ability to reach audiences far beyond those possible with in-person events is also an exciting opportunity. Downing believes that science festivals beyond the pandemic may be offered as hybrid events.
‘The online has some real advantages to it: your audiences aren’t bound by geography or time, people have more control over the space they are in when they engage, and online enables a range of engagement modes,’ she explains. ‘Equally, the social connections and serendipitous elements inherent to in-person events are special. I think the rise in frequency and willingness for online events provides a great opportunity to choose a mode of delivery that fits the type of engagements that we want; we just need to get to know the spaces better, so we can learn how to take advantage of them.’