Social Media and Student Engagement in a Microgravity Planetary Science Experiment
Thursday, 18 December 2014
The Collisional Accretion Experiment (CATE) is a planetary science experiment funded by NASA’s Undergraduate Instrumentation Program (USIP). CATE is a microgravity experiment to study low-velocity collisions between cm-sized particles and 0.1-1.0 mm-sized particles in vacuum to better understand the conditions for accretion in the protoplanetary disk as well as collisions in planetary ring systems. CATE flew on three parabolic airplane flights in July, 2014, using NASA’s “Weightless Wonder VI” aircraft. A significant part of the project was documenting the experience of designing, building, testing, and flying spaceflight hardware from the perspective of the undergraduates working on the experiment. The outreach effort was aimed at providing high schools students interested in STEM careers with a first-person view of hands-on student research at the university level. We also targeted undergraduates at the University of Central Florida to make them aware of space research on campus. The CATE team pursued multiple outlets, from social media to presentations at local schools, to connect with the public and with younger students. We created a website which hosted a blog, links to media publications that ran our story, videos, and galleries of images from work in the lab throughout the year. In addition the project had Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. These social media outlets had much more traffic than the website except during the flight week when photos posted on the blog generated significant traffic. The most effective means of communicating the project to the target audience, however, was through face-to-face presentations in classrooms. We saw a large increase in followers on Twitter and Instagram as the flight campaign got closer and while we were there. The main source of followers came after we presented to local high school students. These presentations were made by the undergraduate student team and the faculty mentors (Colwell and Dove).