Virtual internship inspires creativity and resilience

By Field Peterson

Sarah Viders
Sarah Viders, junior ecosystem science and sustainability major.

When you think of citizen science programs, you might picture sunny days, lush foliage and teamwork – not sitting behind a computer all day, yet this was the reality Sarah Viders, a junior ecosystem science and sustainability major, faced when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a typically in-person, hands-on internship with Native Bee Watch to a virtual one in Spring 2020.

Created in 2016, Native Bee Watch, a CSU Extension program, utilizes volunteer citizen science to monitor biodiversity in Colorado. As an intern, Viders was faced with a difficult task: monitoring over 200 volunteers who were gathering data and attending training sessions.

Making the most of virtual platforms

Instead of its traditional in-person set up, Viders said that Native Bee Watch got creative with group interactions. They utilized Facebook groups and Zoom sessions where volunteers could post bee photographs and receive help with identification, ask questions and interact with each other virtually.

Volunteers would post bee photographs on the Facebook group for identification help. Credit: Sarah Viders.

The ingenuity and adaptability from the program inspired Viders to get creative with the experience, as well. She spent her time in the internship creating her own online messaging through “Sarah’s Science-Based Sustainability Secrets Weekly videos focused on tips for sustainability at home and were just as helpful for her to make as she hopes they were for others to watch she said.

As part of the internship, Viders embarked on her own research project using this new virtual medium to learn about the citizen scientist volunteers within the program and promote science education and sustainability.

“The social science aspect consisted of monitoring how participants are using social media. For the ecological piece, I collected observational data based on the type of bee and the competition I observed at South Platte Park and Carson Nature Center. I conducted independent observations with aid of photographs, a Citizen Science Training, and Extension experts. A path was marked out, that I would follow every week to record data.”

Sarah’s Science-Based Sustainability Secrets episode list.

The benefits of virtual work

Between virtually managing volunteer activities and working on her own research project, Viders encountered some challenges. As organized as the internship was, she still found the lack of face-to-face interaction difficult, yet she says the benefits were surprising.

“One benefit to the online setting was I was able to work in the mornings or night, depending on what I felt like doing that day. If I wanted to go on a hike, I could, and come home after and check emails and develop my programming,” Viders said.

“Although this program would have been wonderful in person, meeting the volunteers, having it in an online setting did not require me to think on the spot constantly and gave me time to develop my communication skills in emails and my time management skills.”