Moving Our Undergraduate Research Showcase Online
Holding an annual onsite student event during the pandemic was a challenge. Emma Norman from the University of Exeter explains how deciding to go online allowed students to celebrate their academic success.
Author: Emma Norman
What is the Undergraduate Research Showcase?
Since 2016, the University of Exeter has held an annual celebration of student research: the Undergraduate Research Showcase. The Showcase is a week-long exhibition of research projects completed by students during their time at the University, for example as part of an assignment, an internship, or just for fun. Entry is open to students of all disciplines across Streatham, St Luke’s and Penryn campuses. Students can submit their research as a 250-word abstract or as a research poster to be displayed throughout the exhibition week.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a shift in the way that education was delivered, with universities transitioning to online and distance learning. For the first time ever, the January 2021 Showcase moved online, allowing us to continue to celebrate the fantastic academic achievements of Exeter’s students in a virtual way. It seemed important for the Showcase to take place to remind students that their contribution to the Exeter community truly matters, regardless of where they were studying during the pandemic.
The challenge ahead
The main challenge for the January 2021 Showcase was how to achieve the Showcase’s learning outcomes while also giving attendees an engaging and enjoyable experience. This involved investigating how to replicate a poster session and launch reception in a virtual environment. Organisers had to plan how to host simultaneous breakout sessions that would prompt relaxed, informal discussions about the work on display, whilst also delivering live presentations and Q-and-A sessions on this work. More important still was how to ensure students, both those participating and those attending the exhibition, felt included even though they might be far away. With lectures, seminars, and all other University-based events already running online, the Showcase could easily have come across as just another screen-based activity. It was particularly important to consider this with regards to student contributors from Penryn, who already may tend to feel more excluded from events run typically on Streatham campus due to the geographical distance.
The task of investigating how to run this new, virtual Showcase belonged to Emily Bushnell in the Academic Skills and Student Engagement Team (ASSET). Emily chose to deliver the virtual exhibition on WordPress; the familiar and user-friendly platform allowed for flexibility and interaction between exhibitors and attendees through polls and comment sections. The Launch Reception, which opened the exhibition week, was hosted on Zoom, with an icebreaker activity on Padlet.
Despite the dramatic and daunting transition to an online format, the Showcase received a record-breaking 70 submissions: 37 abstracts and 33 posters. Most submissions came from students in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields. However, the contributions from Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) remained strong; the Showcase received its first-ever submission in the form of a script, provided by a student in English and Drama. This high level of participation illustrated that the mission to remind students of their amazing contribution to the University had been achieved.
Furthermore, the virtual Showcase was able to achieve the same learning outcomes as the in-person Showcase. Attendees to the exhibition were able to hear about research projects being undertaken across the University of Exeter, which might inspire them in their own research. The winning entries to the 2021 Showcase entered the BCUR 2021, which took place online at the University of Leeds. One first year student, who had never entered an event like the Showcase before, said that the Undergraduate Research Showcase team made her ‘feel supported and encouraged’ throughout and that ‘it was a very successful event personally that supported the foundations in jumpstarting my career’. This student has already submitted to the 2022 Showcase.
What we will take forward
What the online Showcase has done is illustrated how virtual environments can still be effective in making students feel included. Planning is under way for the 2022 Showcase, which will be hosted online and in-person across Streatham, St Luke’s, and Penryn campuses. The aim is to stream the 2022 Launch Reception across all three campuses and online so that students can participate regardless of location, just as they did in the 2021 Showcase. This extension has required extra staff involvement, both online and in-person. Support has been required on all three campuses to advertise the event and to execute it, for example by setting up and manning the exhibition stands and providing technological support. It is hoped that the hybrid nature of the 2022 Showcase will help further extend the popularity of the Showcase amongst students; a return to a physical presence on campus visually promotes the event, whilst the online element makes it accessible to those not on campus.
The focus for an event of this type should be on the specific advantages that it can have for its participants. The 2021 Showcase organisers focused on how exposure is important to research, but that this needs to be achieved in an inclusive and welcoming environment. Through the chosen platforms, the 2021 Showcase showed that this exposure and environment can still be achieved online as well as in-person. The 2022 Showcase will aim to focus on how hybrid exposure can further promote student research and conversations about research. This, teamed with an understanding of how students like to interact with other students’ work, will make for a successful event like this.
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