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Science Ambassador Blog: Funding to organize and implement a social media strategy

By Dr. Brian Winkel
Director, SIMIODE
Emeritus Professor, Mathematics, US Military Academy

I am most fortunate to be an SGCI Science Ambassador on behalf of our project, SIMIODE. We valued the SGCI stipend to support Anthony Stefan, a second-year mathematics graduate student at the Florida Institute of Technology, in his efforts to organize and implement our social media outreach. This funding assisted us in stepping back to reflect and then act on our approaches.  

I write this as the Director of SIMODE and wish to share our overall SGCI connection. In December 2018 we got word of SGCI, what it was, and that it was going to offer a “Bootcamp” (now called Gateway Focus Week) in Indianapolis in May 2019. Because the news was from a very reliable source, Claire Stirm, with whom we had been working on HUBzero platform issues in support of our own HUBzero gateway at, I thought to consider it at least.  

There were six key personnel involved in SIMIODE and I took the advice quite seriously that it would be beneficial if a team were to engage in this week-long Focus Week. Four of these colleagues were academics who were Principal Investigators in our National Science Foundation grant to support what SIMIODE does and two were technical support folks.

Wait, I have not told you what SIMIODE is about. SIMIODE, Systemic Initiative for Modeling Investigations and Opportunities with Differential Equations,  supports faculty and students who are interested in motivating and learning differential equations through modeling at all stages of the process. We are a Community of Practice, all FREE, all Open Educational Resources (OER), sitting on a HUBzero platform. We are migrating to QUBES  for mutual benefit. This migration is supported by an SGCI Extended Developer Support consultant and a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, administered by the SCORE network at Bates College.

Back to the Focus Week story. So, I thought to myself, “What would be the benefits to SIMIODE? How much money would such a venture cost us?” And linking those two questions, “Would it be worth it to attend and which team members could we send?”

My PI colleagues in our NSF grant were all academics and mid-May was not a good time for them due to wrapping up a semester. I thought of my two technical personnel, Leigh Noble and Mark Tourtellott, both of whom were essential to support and run our HUBzero platform. They were also colleagues in the SIMIODE endeavor, Leigh with PhD in applied mathematics and Mark with MFA and Instructional Technology background.  I saw this as a retreat opportunity for the three of us to build a more solid working relationship and take time “away” to develop our understanding of what SIMIODE is and, more importantly, could be.

Since our two technical colleagues are on hourly support, we would have to set a number of hours for their time for this intense experience, they and I knowing it is part of our education and there would be more than monetary gain for them. The Focus Week is offered at no cost, but, with transportation, funds for their time on task, hotel expenses, and some food (as SGCI was gracious enough to provide many meals) SIMIODE had to lay out $8,500 for the three of us to attend the week-long event – it was worth every penny! As Director of SIMIODE I had to make the call. “Let’s do it!” But I was still not perfectly sure of what we were getting into, despite Claire’s constant reassurance that this will be particularly good for SIMIODE’s future. 

Thus, began our relationship with SGCI.  It is a journey that has benefitted SIMIODE in many ways. While at times during the workshop (I am going to use that word as we were “shopping” for ideas, and it was “work”) I was uncomfortable with such words as “marketing” “sales pitch” and “sustainability” because I am a child of the sixties and an academic. Thus, money represented a kind of greedy evil of the “establishment.” As the week went on and the terrific leaders and engagers brought our team to new perspectives on issues, I began to realize these words all apply to us as teachers. For we are marketing our ideas, our methods, new skills, different viewpoints, etc. to our students; indeed, we are selling them stuff, for that is what tuition is about. They pay the money, and we deliver ideas! Transactional! Our Admissions Offices sometimes included us as faculty to show the school’s “wares.” So would engage in sales pitches called recruiting.

Who was I kidding? For I was marketing and in sales when I organized contributed paper sessions at meetings about our work in SIMIODE and when I solicited colleagues to write-up classroom teaching material we so nicely packaged as “Modeling Scenarios.” 

The “Focus Week” workshop experience was simply amazing. The team of leaders were remarkably talented and giving of their time, experiences, and convictions. They listened to us, cajoled us into sharing our angsts, and put us to work in building for our organization through bootstrapping and peer feedback from others who were experiencing some of this expansionist thinking. And workshop leaders FULLY EXPECTED US TO IMPLEMENT PLANS WHEN WE WENT BACK HOME – and they were going to check-up on us, support us, engage with us, and help us build on our ideas, plans, visions, and goals we set during our time together. It was commitment time in areas I had not imagined.

To me the most important things I learned were: (1) be bold in your planning and outreach, for you believe in what you are doing, and (2) take sustainability very seriously, because grant money will not be there forever or “What will you do when the grant money runs out?” We came to this experience seeking help so that our project would live on. So, we paid attention and were fully engaged. It was hard work and our brains raced on one theme, only to be corralled into thinking about yet one more issue we should address. SGCI summarized all into a rich set of presentations, all bound in a notebook to which I still refer.  

What has life been like with SGCI after our “Focus Week”? Simply put, wonderful, for SGCI has given us support in the most professional, personal, and useful ways. I will highlight the work they have done for us.

  1. Marketing and ascertaining customer needs and interests. We watched SGCI personnel conduct some interviews to see what our colleagues who taught differential equations really thought of the course and our offering and then we were supervised in conducting interviews. We learned you can learn a lot by listening.

  2. User Experience study. We had a team of very bright graduate students really dive into our website and meet with us to critique what we offer and what viewers see, down to fine but important detail (too much text, more graphics, and less clutter), flow and emphases, and much more, all of which we are using as we bring SIMIODE into the QUBES Hub fold.

  3. Analytics, namely finding out about visits to our site. What are they valuing as evidenced by the material they visit and the frequency? We had been aware of Google Analytics, but we had not fully taken advantage of what it could tell us about us.

  4. Sustainability. This was the BIGGY for us. We really had to think of how we would generate funds in an environment that featured an OER FREE resources platform. We generated several ideas at the workshop, but since that time we have used the drive instilled in us by the sustainability sessions and brow beating(!) We have built three initial structures: (a) SCUDEM – SIMIODE Challenge Using Differential Equations, an annual student challenge for teams to build mathematical models and present their ideas, either through local gatherings around the world or through videos judged by volunteer faculty, (b) SIMIODE online textbook, illustrating the use of modeling to introduce the mathematics under study and sustain student interest, with attention to that mathematics, and (c) SIMIODE EXPO, an annual gathering of colleagues from around the world for a virtual 2 day conference on teaching differential equations using modeling. All these have modest costs of registration or access fees for SIMIODE sustainability, while keeping all SIMIODE individual resources FREE and totally OER.

During the time since we gathered in Indianapolis in May 2019 SGCI has been incredibly supportive of our work, always ready for advice and responses to questions. Further, SGCI has helped SIMIODE financially in several areas:

  1. SGCI Summer Intern: we had one-month support for a student to work on SIMIODE (such a good idea we hired a second student from SIMIODE funds to have a team). They developed student perspectives on our web activities and particularly on SCUDEM.

  2. SGCI Science Ambassador: we received support for one of our interns to continue as our Social Media Director to ramp up our outreach efforts, which were envisioned at the SGCI Focus Week.

  3. SGCI Extended Developer Support: we were given valuable technical assistance and support for the harder-than-we-thought migration of SIMIODE into QUBES Hub.

Bottom Line is that we would not be where we are today without SGCI assistance and we are grateful for their reach out initially and their ongoing efforts. I would encourage any gateway team or team planning a gateway to avail themselves of SGCI’s exceptional offerings and great personnel. Thank you SGCI!