The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC held its 30th annual Astronomy Days event this January…virtually! Typically, Astronomy Days draws 14K-16K visitors over the two-day weekend event. With the pandemic, such a large event was an impossibility, so we decided to do it over Zoom! We expanded to seven days of programming and delivered 50 awesome astronomy programs!
Converting an in-person, interactive event to 100% virtual was a challenge, but we had already converted our BugFest and Darwin Day events, so we had already learned some valuable lessons. Just like in-person events, partners are absolutely key to success. Similar to past in-person Astronomy Days, this year for our virtual event we partnered with the Raleigh Astronomy Club and our local NASA JPL Solar System Ambassadors, in addition to NASA Langley. These folks presented the bulk of our programs. In addition to presenting themselves, our staff astrophysicists also invited many of their colleagues to present. Lastly, we invited our in-person exhibitors to present programs, if they wished. Every scheduled program had a practice session where Museum staff and volunteers watch the program and give feedback, ask questions, etc.
We have learned a lot from doing virtual programs, but Astronomy Days taught us even more! Our registration numbers for the programs were much higher than we’d seen for our other virtual programs. We thought we were prepared for those large numbers, but we were not! We made a lot of on-the-fly changes to handle the large number of logins. Typically, we hold our programs in Zoom and we have an expert, an on-camera host and a behind-the-scenes moderator. With over 200 logins, we found we needed four moderators! We also learned that each moderator must have a specific job they focus on so multiple people don’t get in each other’s ways.
The first moderator records the program, lets folks in from the waiting room, spotlights the speakers and drops relevant links into the chat. The second moderator gathers questions and pastes into a document for the host to ask the expert. The third moderator monitors the chat and privately messages folks who have less than desirable behavior. They give two warnings and then will remove the troublemaker from the program. (Anything really bad gets instant removal.) The final moderator monitors the chat and answers the “easily googleable” questions. The chat is so busy with 200+ logins that we need all those eyes to keep things organized and on-message.
For each program, we share a slide as visitors enter with a fun planet fact. As folks enter, we ask an icebreaker question they can answer in the chat. For example, for the Moon Zoom, our question was “what’s your favorite phase of the Moon?” Then the host launches a Zoom tutorial and goes over chat expectations. Another modification we made after the first few programs is to include some very specific language during the tutorial about the chat about our expectations and the consequences for not being a good digital citizen. Not only did that alert participants that we were going to monitor and react to the chat, but it also alerted other participants that we had a plan and were taking care of the “spammers.”
We delivered all programs live and recorded them for folks who could not attend the live event. From survey data from BugFest and Darwin Day, we learned that folks would register and then forget to attend the live program. We also learned folks would register even if they couldn’t attend. From that information, we decided to email registrants a reminder each morning for the day’s programs. After the recording was uploaded to the Museum’s YouTube channel, we sent another email alerting folks that it was now available to watch on-demand.
As we are now planning our annual Reptile and Amphibian Day event, we’ve made even more changes to our process. Instead of holding all programs in Zoom, we are going to stream directly to YouTube and use the more advanced YouTube chat moderation functions. We have also learned that many schools are not permitted to use Zoom, but are able to use YouTube.
Finally, we want to make our programs as accessible as possible, so we had all programs live captioned, thanks to a sponsorship from North Carolina Space Grant. Additionally, we had several requests for ASL interpreters. To prepare for live captioning, the moderators gathered vocabulary and jargon in a document to share with the captioners in advance of the program.
We are very proud of our event and, though not flawless, it was extremely successful! We are excited to implement the lessons we’ve learned to future programs. We have also received overwhelming feedback to continue virtual programming even when it is safe to be together for large-scale events again.