The Show Must Go On--CBE Women hosts virtual outreach event

by Chris Dawson

2020 marks the eleventh year that members of Cornell’s CBE Women group have hosted their Women’s Outreach in Materials, Energy, and Nanobiotechnology (WOMEN) event. But it almost didn’t happen.

The fate of this year’s event was up in the air as the novel corona virus and COVID-19 forced the hasty closure of campus back in March. In fact, on March 10, (just five days before the scheduled big day), the group decided to cancel.

“A lot of us were really disappointed,” said Tiffany Tang, President of CBE Women in 2019-2020. “At that point, almost everything had already been planned and was ready to go.” At first, the organizers considered having an online version of the event on its regularly scheduled day, but the logistical challenges proved to be too complex to overcome in four short days and without access to Olin Hall or any of the labs in the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE).

Through the month of April, Tang and the CBE Women Outreach Co-Chairs Samavi Farnush and Sanjuna Stalin kicked around ideas on how to move forward with the event. But it wasn’t until early May that they settled on a plan. By that time, a campus group called Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), had hosted a wildly successful online STEM outreach event of their own and was able to offer Tang, Farnush, and Stalin advice and encouragement. (All three women are doctoral students in CBE).

Once they decided to move forward with an online event, Tang, Farnush, and Stalin had to reassess and decide which programmed activities to keep, which to alter, and what to discard from their original plan. “Things that are engaging in the real world aren’t always so good as virtual activities,” said Stalin. “So we really had to think through what could work online.”

In the end, the group came up with many things that could, and DID, work online. There were faculty presentations, a panel of alumni who are working in industry, a panel of graduate students, a parent program, and a panel of undergraduate students. In addition, there were also small break-out “rooms” where participants could simply talk while eating lunch.

Rong Yang, Assistant Professor in the Smith School and current faculty advisor of CBE Women, was impressed by how well the event came off. “It was a significant amount of revamping that the team was able to do in a short amount of time,” says Yang. “They did a really wonderful job.”

Long-time former advisor to the group, CBE Associate Professor Susan Daniel, concurs. “The whole day went so well,” says Daniel. “Hosting the event online actually gave the group some flexibility they would not have had if the event were held on campus as usual. We were able to have two alumni answer questions about what it’s like to work in industry and we have never been able to offer that before. It’s just too hard to bring alumni back to campus for one day. It was nice to be able to complete the puzzle for the girls and their parents. Normally we tell them a lot about coming to college but we’ve never been able to talk much about what comes after college. It was a really great addition.”

Daniel points out another unexpected benefit of having the day’s activities go virtual this year: “Usually the event is constrained by a reasonable, albeit long, driving distance. Because that barrier was removed with technology, we reached students in Mexico, Columbia, India, NYC and several other states, so the impact was world-wide for the first time!”

Based on evaluations participants filled out after the event, all of the offerings were rated highly--but there was a clear favorite. “The session with undergrads was the most popular, probably because it is the step that is closest for these girls,” says Farnush. “They now have a much better sense of what chemical engineering is and what it might be like to study it in college.”

Tiffany Tang came away from the event with an expanded understanding of how useful technology can be for outreach events. “We were able to have grad student and alumni panels, which we had not done in the past when the event was on campus,” says Tang. “Also, we were able to reach so many more people than we could in past years. This was a really tough challenge and I am so glad we took it on instead of deciding to sit it out this year.”

CBE Women are hoping they will be able to host the WOMEN event in the real world next year, but if not, they will be ready.


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