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Rosie McNeely works on an oral presentation about the Lavender Scare, to be presented digitally as part of URCAD. Photo courtesy of Rosie McNeely.

Week-long digital celebration of undergraduate achievement to begin April 22

Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day, a cornerstone event at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is now in its 24th year of honoring the creative and academic work of hundreds of undergraduate students. But its usual format, in which presenters, moderators and guests pack tightly into the University Center to share posters and oral presentations, is far from tenable amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed UMBC’s physical campus until at least fall 2020.

Director of Undergraduate Research Dr. April Householder knew that URCAD would have to be moved online, but she did not know how. Initially, students were told that they would simply be uploading PDFs of their posters and presentations, but the interactive nature of URCAD, in which guests walk through exhibits and engage with presenters, would have been totally lost this way.

The Department of Information Technology was instrumental in figuring out what technology would be best suited for shifting their event online, ultimately choosing a tool called VoiceThread. VoiceThread allows presenters to add a voiceover to their visual elements, and also allows viewers to leave not only text, but also audio and video, comments on presentations.

For Dr. John Fritz, Associate Vice President for Instructional Technology, VoiceThread was the natural choice for three reasons. Firstly, UMBC already had a VoiceThread license, “which was key since we didn’t have much time to pull this off,” Fritz explained via email. 

Secondly, VoiceThread is multimedia friendly without being as cumbersome as teleconferences: Fritz describes it “as a video conference that occurs over time, not at the same time or a discussion board where you can do more than read what people write” (emphasis his). Finally, he hoped that URCAD could serve as an opportunity to expose the UMBC community to VoiceThread, which is a tool that has been under-utilized by faculty up to this point.

Householder says that this method will be effective for keeping student presentations essentially the same as they would have been in person; what will be different about this year’s URCAD is that it will take place over the course of an entire week, from April 22 to 29. This allows guests an extended period of time to watch and comment on presentations and also affords the researchers more time to respond. 

She sees this as a blessing in disguise; URCAD is usually held on a Wednesday, meaning that students are racing in and out of the event, to and from class. As such, they do not always have time to thoroughly engage with the projects. “The asynchronous format is really allowing us to give that experience to viewers … where they don’t feel rushed,” Householder said. She hopes that this extended version of URCAD will give guests more time to leave thoughtful comments and ask meaningful questions. (Only those with UMBC email addresses will be able to interact with the presentations, though).

The online format also comes with another surprising boon: the ability to archive presentations. Every year, the abstracts from URCAD are archived, but VoiceThread will allow entire presentations, as well as any interactions between presenters and their audiences, to be memorialized digitally. Householder is excited that prospective students who are interested in completing research will have these examples to look to when they are considering UMBC.

One presenter, Rosie McNeely, sees another way that this archive will be beneficial: as a resource for future researchers.

McNeely will be presenting an oral presentation and PowerPoint that is the culmination of the research she has done about the Lavender Scare, a period of time concurrent with the better-known Red Scare, during which LGBTQ+ people were fired from government jobs en masse. But when it came time to work on her digital presentation, she was unsure where to begin.

“I was like, ‘Oh, God, how am I going to do this? What’s it really going to look like?’” she recalled. Though she knows that this is an unusual situation and it is unlikely that URCAD will be held digitally again anytime soon, she still feels that this online archive could serve as a reference for anyone who has to present research digitally in the future.

McNeely, who has previously used VoiceThread in a language class, does not anticipate her presentation being significantly different from what she would have presented in person — it is still an oral presentation accompanied by a PowerPoint that contains mostly images and visual aids. She also notes that she had essentially finished her research by the time social distancing went into full effect.

A few presenters have had their projects completely upended, however. In fact, the rules regarding what can be presented at URCAD this year were adjusted to account for unfinished projects. Whereas most years students must present data during URCAD, students who were unable to finish their research due to the effects of COVID-19 will have the opportunity to share “something that’s leaning a little bit towards a literature review,” according to Householder.

There are other students, still, who completed their projects but will not be able to display them as originally planned. Amongst them is an interdisciplinary team of students who were planning to present UMBC’s latest kinetic sculpture, MC Hammerhead.

The team had planned to have the sculpture, which is designed in an individualized studies class to participate in Baltimore’s annual kinetic sculpture race, on display outside of the UC, where URCAD attendees would be able to look at, touch and even ride the sculpture. This would have been the optimal way to show off their work, said team member and junior individualized studies and animation double major Susanna Abler. She explained that it would have been “an opportunity for people to have their own experience with the sculpture and see it first hand, because it’s kind of a weird thing to hear about.”

Their new presentation will include a series of videos where the teammates each describe their own role in the project; Abler, for example, worked on the design of MC Hammerhead, with an awareness of how her art could impact the sculpture’s functions. 

Even though they may not be able to go as in-depth into the details of the sculpture as they would have in person, Abler thinks visual aids will play a huge role in exhibiting different concepts and parts of the construction process.

“[The videos are] going to be talking about: here’s something we changed, here’s a picture of what it was like before and after, maybe different iterations of design that we went through,” Abler explained. “We try to do a really good job of documenting things with photographs.”

Beyond presentations, Householder has also made an effort to retain URCAD’s most distinctive elements. Keynote speaker Keisha John, like the student presenters, will be sending in a video that Householder anticipates will go up midway through the week. URCAD’s annual selfie contest will still happen, but will focus on screenshots rather than traditional selfies. The UMBC Review, a journal of UMBC undergraduate research that is usually released during URCAD, will be posted in PDF form.

“All of the other elements of URCAD that make it fun and interactive will still be there,” Householder said.

URCAD this year may not be in the format that researchers imagined it would be when they began their work — a disappointing end to a year of hard work for many. Still, according to Householder, many symposiums and conferences were simply canceled as a result of COVID-19.

“This is totally uncharted territory, and we’re just happy to be moving forward at this point,” she said.