Summer 2020 eNewsletter

Spotlight: Virtual Outreach Offers an Expanded Audience

Aubrey Lashaway (left) and Michele Wensman (right) hosting the CIGLR outreach table at the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) 2018 Conference. Picture Credit: Michele Wensman.

Each year, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) joins forces with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA GLERL) to participate in at least ten local and regional outreach events. CIGLR Outreach Specialist Michele Wensman and Communications Specialist Aubrey Lashaway create an elaborate set-up, often requiring several exhibit tables to display hands-on activities that translate CIGLR and NOAA GLERL research into community engagement. In 2019, they reached approximately 19,000 people during public outreach events.

2020 has been a different year entirely, as COVID-19 has upturned the way we interact as humans. CIGLR planned to kick off their 2020 outreach events by traveling to Michigan Technological University (MTU), a CIGLR Consortium partner institution, to participate in their Annual National World Water Day event. However, in early March, MTU released a statement regarding cancellation of the in-person event due to COVID-19. Shortly after, one by one, each outreach event on CIGLR’s calendar was cancelled. 

“So, what do you do when you can’t reach the public in person?” asks Wensman. “We completely switched gears and created virtual programming, recognizing that teachers still had their classrooms and parents were looking for ways to connect to engaging science. We created and shared activities on Asian carp, Great Lakes food-webs, Great Lakes trivia, and questions about fish otoliths. CIGLR’s outreach campaign on Twitter included puzzles on invasive dreissenid mussels, word-finds, and coloring pages of Great Lakes fishes. We shared photos of research and online publications. One of CIGLR’s research technicians created a video on hypoxia. We even posted fun science jokes!” 

The most rewarding outcome was virtually connecting with 797,807 people from April to June and watching them share and promote our programs with others. 

“CIGLR misses that human connection with people all across the Great Lakes region,” says Wensman. “We miss stories that parents and children share about a favorite Great Lake, and concerns about the importance of taking care of these most precious waters. Although there is no replacement, we know that virtual programs help enhance our connection, until we can meet again.”