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Our journey to offering virtual workshops: one AAAS facilitator’s perspective

AAAS Communicating Science Workshop facilitator Gemima Philippe shares how her team pivoted to a virtual program during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been nearly a year of urgent transition. Since March, we’ve been in a state of flux while trying to get important work done. While the world was radically shifting, our day-to-day lives still required our attention and maintaining normalcy began to feel just as urgent.

AAAS Communicating Science Workshops

The AAAS Communicating Science Workshops program was not immune to these changes. As closures and travel restrictions began to take form, we in the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology wondered what it would mean for our workshops program, both in the short and long terms. After all, we still had workshops scheduled! Within a week, we moved from facilitating workshops in-person to facilitating them virtually — right in the middle of our busy spring season!

The transition was far from easy. Our workshop format, which is informed by instructional design best practices, was designed for in-person learning environments. Part of the magic of our workshops is the learning environment we cultivate. Our community norms, which we set at the start of each workshop, encourage participants to try new things, even when it’s uncomfortable, and we provide support in those uncomfortable moments. Could we cultivate that same supportive vibe online?

We immediately set about learning the best ways to facilitate learning online. Of course, we looked first at existing research about virtual engagement. We also read through distance learning criteria and considered what we already knew about adult learning. Our next step was to recreate a compelling virtual learning environment, so we incorporated polls, breakout sessions, more opportunities for discussion, and BREAKS! We learned that taking breaks is critical for overall wellbeing, so we make sure to take a break at the end of each hour during our three-hour workshops. As we continue to learn, we will continue to adjust our virtual programming to ensure we’re providing the best workshop experience we can.

Our facilitators also had to learn how to lead workshops online. We began to learn the basics of online facilitation, from little things like proper lighting to bigger things like non-verbal cues and managing productive silence. In a virtual environment, I’ve learned facilitators have to be a bit more proactive in seeking feedback and must work a little harder to encourage questions. Now that our virtual workshops program is fully operational, all of our facilitators have undergone training and are facilitating virtually. We also have periodic check-ins to add to our skills and share our successes and struggles with one another.

As a workshop facilitator, one of my greatest challenges early on was learning how to address questions participants posed in the chat window without losing my stride in the presentation. It’s extremely difficult to keep up with that fast-moving chat window, and I’m grateful to my teammates who serve as “producers” for our workshops. Our producers are our program’s unsung heroes. Very early on, we learned that the workshop facilitator just can’t do it all – speak, run a presentation, keep an eye on the chat window and troubleshoot technical problems. Our team of facilitators pair up, with one serving as the producer for each workshop. In addition to running things behind the scenes, producers help monitor the chat window and answer questions. It’s especially helpful to have someone well-trained to answer questions and it relieves the burden on the facilitator who is presenting.

Now that it’s been almost 10 months since we initially pivoted from in-person to virtual workshops, we’re able to pause and reflect. And so far…so good!

Quote "Time spent in a workshop like this is well worth the investment"
Review provided by a workshop participant via post-workshop survey.

Our workshops have been really well received and participants have reported feeling like they’ve benefited from attending. Considering how long three hours can feel when you’re participating in an online event, our participants have shared (via a feedback survey) that they would have appreciated even more time to talk through the concepts in our workshops.

One thing we didn’t need to change much, thankfully, was our content, which is based in science communication research. After introducing each component of our Framework for Public Engagement (see image below), our facilitators help participants develop individualized public engagement plans, connecting their ideas to actions. As a facilitator, I’ve been thrilled to watch these plans develop and I am always so honored when participants reach out to tell me about how their engagements went.

Virtual instructor image above Public Engagement Framework
Workshop facilitator Kristen Lewis introduces the AAAS Framework for Public Engagement to participants.

By adding virtual options, we have made our Communicating Science workshops program available to more scientists and I’m particularly proud of that. Science communication training is so important, especially now as people are looking for information from trusted sources. Our program helps scientists plan for their engagements and boost their confidence to get started. For organizations with dispersed populations, a virtual workshop is ideal as they can’t easily bring everyone together in one room for a three-hour session. For individual scientists, our new workshops for individuals allows them to participate in training without having to wait on their institution to host a workshop, and to connect with other scientists also interested in this kind of work. Even when we ultimately return to in-person activities, I look forward to us continuing to offer virtual workshops.


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About Gemima

Gemima Philippe

Gemima Philippe is a communication associate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. She coordinates marketing and social media for Center programs, facilitates Communicating Science workshops, and supports other Center programs. You can find her on Twitter at @Just1Change.