Arkansas Summer Research Institute overcomes pandemic challenges by going virtual

A screen grab of a full Zoom meeting.

Originally featured on: AEDC , March 9th 2021

Arkansas NSF EPSCoR funds collaborative research and education at colleges all over the State. Due to the nature of our work, the pandemic has presented a number of challenges for our program, but also some unique opportunities. Participants were unable to carry out normal research activities on campus, classes were cancelled or moved to virtual instruction, conferences were postponed, and administrative offices transitioned to telework. The lessons we have learned and new tools we have used are helping to inform a blended, safe, and rich educational experience for college students in this difficult time.

Last spring as the stay-at-home orders rolled out, Dr. Patrycja Krakowiak, Dr. Whitney Holden, and I were in the midst of planning our 6th annual Arkansas Summer Research Institute (ASRI), a professional development experience for STEM undergrads. The event is designed to be 100% interactive, hands-on, with no didactic lecture, and was held on the campus of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts (ASMSA). The team was faced with the question: how do we do something 100% interactive online?

We began exploring the tools and software available to us and talking with the faculty presenters to figure out a plan. While initially we were disheartened, we quickly realized that although we would struggle to make a virtual event hands-on, we were no longer limited by how many microscopes we had in a classroom or had to worry about getting kicked out of the dorms to make room for an incoming music camp. We also had more presenters available since they didn’t have to drive down to Hot Springs to teach the classes, and more student attendees who didn’t have to miss their summer jobs or caring for family members to attend the event.

Last summer, we introduced our biggest ASRI ever- all online. We extended the event from one week to two weeks, and developed a schedule that was part synchronous and part asynchronous. Each day the students would log in for the day’s Zoom sessions, taught as interactively as possible, by a group of faculty researchers from around the state. We held Zoom office hours during the 2-hour lunch break to provide opportunities for 1-on-1 interaction in breakout rooms with students. We tried to make the most of the time we had everyone together, and used tools like Zoom polls, Pear Deck, and Labster to keep the students engaged. After the Zoom sessions, the students would work solo on assignments that were due the next day.

We incorporated another strategy to incentivize participation- gamification. It’s already difficult to get shy STEM students to speak up and ask questions in person, but when you can hide behind a disabled camera and muted microphone on Zoom, we feared it would be nearly impossible. At the 2020 ASRI, students earned points throughout the day for participating in the polls, Pear Deck activities, and submitting screenshots of their work in Canvas. They also earned points for asking thoughtful and relevant questions of the presenters. It worked so well it almost backfired- the Zoom chat window exploded during each presenter’s session with so many questions from the students we could barely answer them all- but the presenters loved it and many said they had never seen such an engaged audience. It also spurred additional conversations and discussion that the presenters hadn’t expected, some of which led to students getting internships in the presenters’ labs. We maintained a leaderboard where all the students could see their point earnings, and used a spinning wheel to draw names for cool prizes to help the students in their home-based education like hard drives, Bluetooth conference speakers, headsets, and more.

After the event was over, the organizers got together to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We realized that it was a lot more work for us in preparation and mailing out certificates of completion and prizes, but worth it to us to provide the experience for the students. In our post-survey, the students left wonderful words of encouragement:

“I wasn’t sure if I what I wanted to do in the biomedical engineering field nor any of the things I would need to do in order to pursue my degree but this really helped me visualize a plan for my future. I am so thankful that I was able to participate. I can properly express my gratitude towards everyone involved for how inspired I feel. I like to live by a saying, “aspire to inspire”, and I felt that every time I listened to a speaker or engaged with the program. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“This program gave me the confidence to continue pursuing a scientific career. Before, I saw science as very daunting and intimidating, but now I am excited again and can’t wait to start my career. So thank you!”

“I never knew that LinkedIn could be such an important step in my career and I will definitely be using that and I think this has given me more courage to apply to a MD/PhD.”

We are now planning our second-ever virtual ASRI for the summer of 2021, and are working with new technology partners to provide an even better experience for this year’s attendees. We are grateful to have our health, and to be looking at the horizon of the end of this horrible pandemic that has affected so many families.

Overall, we are excited for the summer and hope that we can reach even more students as we take the ASRI in a new direction. Follow @arepscor on Facebook or Twitter for updates and please spread the word to any interested undergrads you know! The 2021 application is live now at

– The ASRI Team [Jennifer Fowler, Dr. Patrycja Krakowiak, Dr. Whitney Holden]