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Environment, Technology and Economy News

Despite Being Virtual, Scholars Showcases Promote Personal Interaction

For most University of Maryland (UMD) students, the end of the spring semester heralds the start of finals. But for sophomores in College Park Scholars, for the past 24 years, this time of year has signified Academic Showcase.

The event, one of the largest exhibitions of undergraduate student learning on campus each year, typically involves more than 600 Scholars sophomores presenting on their capstone projects to fellow students, faculty, parents and other members of the UMD community.

Last year, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the in-person, Scholars-wide experience. A handful of Scholars programs instead built websites that featured their students’ capstone posters or organized virtual presentations.

Continuing restrictions again prevented a Scholars-wide gathering this year. A year of virtual instruction had better prepared Scholars programs for this kind of situation, however, and in early May, programs hosted a rich array of Academic Showcases.

Live events a hallmark of this year’s Showcases

New this year were multiple live events that allowed for real-time interaction between students and their virtual visitors. Environment, Technology and Economy, for example, leveraged the platform Gathertown to provide a video game–like simulation of an in-person Academic Showcase: Users could walk their avatars into different virtual rooms, encounter others and talk to students about their posters through their cameras and microphones. Visitors could also take in the individual student posters, which had been uploaded ahead of time onto the platform.

“The setup of the space required a lot of work, but we felt it was worth it to give students an opportunity to interact more informally with each other and with faculty,” said Director Tim Knight, who said the event hosted 55 student presenters and some 70 guests. Students presented on everything from the impacts of international digital censorship on sustainability to community gardens and local food systems.

Science, Technology and Society (STS) also opted for a live, synchronous Showcase. With its capstone course specifically designed to prepare students to facilitate deliberations on an ethical issue related to science and technology, the faculty wanted to retain the opportunity for participant interaction.

After considering several platforms, STS landed upon Nooks. The result: Visitors found themselves comfortably seated in a virtual room, with sophomores leading discussions on topics ranging from the ethical implications of vaccine passports to societal governance of artificial intelligence. Sophomores helped guide the discussion by providing stakeholder cards that offered different perspectives on the issue, creating an interactive game or presenting a future scenario for participants to consider.

“The discussion activities that the sophomores design are an active way for our first-year students and other guests to participate in Showcase,” said David Tomblin, STS director.

Showcases enhance public speaking

Regardless of platform, or whether a Showcase was held live or posted on a website, the common thread across all was engagement and learning.

In the Public Leadership and Media, Self and Society programs, sophomores had already developed electronic portfolios, or “e-portfolios,” that outlined their experiences in images and words. Still, the programs hosted a joint Academic Showcase over Zoom, where students were grouped by practicum type.

With a live Showcase, “the sophomores gain an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to further reflect on their Scholars experience,” noted Kelly Brower, coordinator for both programs. “The freshmen get to learn about—and hopefully be inspired by—their practicum options.”

Christina Alvarez, a sophomore Media Scholar majoring in communications, found the live event valuable. “Presenting live allowed me to explain more in depth and go beyond the content in my e-portfolio,” she observed. “It helped with my public speaking skills, but I feel that it also helped the current freshmen by allowing them to interact with the creator of the e-portfolio and ask questions.”

Global Public Health (GPH) last year created a website for its student practicum posters. The program repeated the experience this year: Along with expandable thumbnails of each sophomore’s practicum poster was a written explanation of the student’s experience and a recorded presentation.

The recordings, according to Assistant Director Haley Axton, gave students the opportunity to share their personal connections to their practica beyond the text portion. “For many of our students, this is also the first time they are presenting an academic poster. We did not want them to miss the opportunity to learn ways to present this type of information to a diverse audience,” she said.

And, at the bottom of every student’s practicum poster: a comment section to invite interaction between students.

Visit program Showcases:

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ETE students take in a poster presentation via the Gathertown app
Environment, Technology and Economy students listened to poster presentations in the Gathertown platform.
JLT students view a poster presentation on Zoom
Justice and Legal Thought was one of a handful of programs whose Academic Showcase required students to present on their practicum experiences live on Zoom.
STS students seated on a virtual deck via the Nooks platform
Using the Nooks platform, Science, Technology and Society's Showcase gathered students in virtual rooms—or, more precisely, a virtual rooftop deck—to foster small-group discussion among participants.
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