liveSciences³ Student Peer Community
Humans are inherently social beings, and their survival depends on cooperation. Science, especially, lives off exchange and collaboration.
That is where the idea of the liveSciences³ Student Peer Community came from; the life sciences can only benefit from its students networking and supporting each other, no matter where they are and where they belong.
Why a Student Peer Community? – Vision & Objectives
When we envisioned the Student Peer Community, we thought of an online community by and for students from Göttingen and the other liveSciences³ universities. We imagined a safe space for peer exchange, belonging, making new connections, learning, experimenting, sharing, reflecting and collaborating. We also conceived it as sustainable; our intention was that exchange and events would continue after the liveSciences³ project ended. These different dimensions would help achieve the long-term goal of the community, which is to simplify the abroad experience of future generations of international students.
What is the Student Peer Community and what does it do? – Implementation measures
There is nothing better than a space to interact in order to build a community. Therefore, in addition to one-on-one support, we offered two types of events as well as other spaces for the students to bond, exchange and collaborate. To make the Student Peer Community more visible, we also made the Community Tuesdays posts series on our Instagram and Twitter accounts part of the project’s social media strategy.
Moreover, the People of liveSciences³ developed from our wish to make certain people and their work more known. Although these persons were neither students nor did they work in the life sciences, it was important to us to do so to promote a sense of community, since liveSciences³ is an interdisciplinary project.
Every semester, a group of students from the project's universities would benefit from the liveSciences³ Mobility Grants, for which they would have to hand in an experience report at the end of the term – in total, 37 students participated in these meetings.
The reports had to contain two parts: first, a written text and second a non-written format (either visual, audio or video). The goal of these reports was for the students to reflect on what skills they developed through the abroad experience and how it made them grow, while also sharing information that could be helpful to prospective exchange students and developing their digital competencies.
The Events for Exchange Students were created to provide
- guidance to make the report preparation and submission process easier;
- a safe space where students could exchange about their experience abroad;
- a space where students could support each other in making their reports.
The Events took place on Zoom to include the exchange students outside of Göttingen and had a similar structure every semester: At the beginning of the term, the group would get to know each other and the requirements and expectations regarding the events and reports. Over the term, they would get an introduction to Mahara (the platform on which they should create and submit their reports) and be encouraged to develop their ideas for the report to start creating material. Later on, they would be given the opportunity to submit their first draft to receive feedback from both the team and their peers to ensure their reports fulfilled the requirements, after which they would be given time to finish their final version before submitting it at the last meeting.
The Social Events were the second type of regular events we offered. The idea was to create a space where students who are or have been on an exchange with liveSciences³ and staff members can socialize in an informal setting to strengthen the bond between community members – and simply have fun!
The Events took place monthly in different formats (online, hybrid and in-person). We offered various activities, from online cooking, baking, and game or karaoke evenings to in-person picnics, bowling evenings and excursions to the Christmas market.
In addition, we organized some slightly more formal events.
One was an online Networking Night where students (some who were about to go abroad, others who just came back) could exchange their experience and ask questions to the administrative representatives.
Another one was an online Global Village; the idea came from the wish of some students to learn more about their peers’ cultures. Usually, Global Villages take place offline, and groups representing each country prepare a stall with national food, music, clothes, etc. But instead, the students prepared not-too-serious and humorous multimedia presentations about their countries, which was fun to witness.
Last but not least, we organized two Science Slams, one online and the other hybrid.
Mahara was the platform onto which the students were required to create and submit their experience reports. Editing the reports was not the only function of the platform, however; there were also forums that could be used.
We created three forums: one for general discussion, one for questions & requests and one in which the students could request feedback on their reports from their peers.
The Peer Collaboration Space was a Zoom room created for the students so they could meet between the events in case they wanted to help each other with their reports or any other matter. They could find the link and password to access the room on Mahara and use it at all times.
The WhatsApp group quickly became the primary platform for the Community, since all generations of exchange students were added to it, and it was the fastest and easiest to navigate.
We mostly used it to invite and remind students of up-coming events or send pictures and videos taken at these events. At times the students themselves took the initiative and organized meetings. In addition, it was sometimes also used to ask Mahara/report-related questions (instead of e-mail, since again it was faster and easier).
“The good mood and the investment of everyone were very pleasant. It was a nice way to meet and discover every member of the peer community. We shared our culture and some stories. We had a lot of fun.”
“I liked that the Events for Exchange Students were casual and fun. It takes away a part of the stress that comes with meeting new people. But I was always at ease during the events. Also, it was nice to let us vote on what kind of activity we would like to do. It made us more involved and excited for the upcoming events!”
“The fact that the events were every two weeks helped to feel supported through this experience. I think the offline events were my favourite part.”
“It was great to see how we went from being unknown exchange students to international friends who share a lot during the semester.”
“I liked that the meetings were online so that everyone from everywhere could attend.”
- Who reads experience reports anymore?
We took this as an opportunity to both make experience reports more interactive and encourage students to develop their creativity and digital skills.
- All in all, the combination of regular online, hybrid and offline events, as well as having a WhatsApp group were crucial to building a sense of community.
- The hybrid and online format were essential to include the students staying outside of Göttingen and building a sense of community.
It is hard to know whether the Peer Collaboration Space on Zoom was used or not, since it was open at all times. It is impossible to track its use on Zoom, but we know that some students used it to work together while being in different countries (e.g., one was in South America, the other in Europe).
- The friendly and comfortable atmosphere of the meetings was praised; by setting the right expectations from the beginning, we could create safe spaces for the students to feel like they could ask questions or share experiences.
- Fun is important when it comes to community building! That is why we offered the Social Events. The offline meetings were especially popular; students expressed the wish to have even more in-person events (bi-monthly was not enough in their opinion). They emphasized the fact that these meetings increased their intercultural competence. Moreover, they shared that this relaxed atmosphere increased their motivation.
In addition, some members of the liveSciences³ team participated in the Social Events. Thanks to the relaxed atmosphere and additional interface, we could gather more insights and adjust our offers in a way that better suited the needs of the students.
- Take pictures & make videos; capturing memories can help with community building too.
- In addition to making the meetings safe spaces, we did our best to make them productive in a fun, easy and interactive way – such meetings should not be only about performance and fulfilling requirements. We broke down the report creation process into small steps over the semester and made sure to support the students at each stage, trying to minimize the necessary interface by making all that happen during the monthly events.
- Moreover, some students shared that the events also helped them improve their English.
- Contact the students if they are absent from the meetings and decide on sanctions: yes, fun is important, but so is structure. Every group needs rules to function. What can help to increase commitment is to let the participants sign some form of contract: in the case of the exchange students, the last rate of the Mobility Grants was only distributed if they fulfilled the requirements in time and attended the Events for Exchange Students.
- Plan time & resources at the beginning of your project to find a platform that is accessible to all and user-friendly.
Unfortunately, we realized that Mahara was not the best fit as it was not user-friendly for this type of activity; in addition, students wished they would have been able to access the reports of former generations before their exchange, which was impossible for many of them since log-in credentials for the university are necessary. Due to the short duration of the project, we decided not to shift to another platform and rather used our resources to make the process easier (we ensured that they only had to use it during the Events where the team was able to support them, using the screen-sharing function on Zoom). In addition, we published the reports on other platforms instead, such as MoveON.
- If possible, try to organize on-campus meetings for the exchange students outside of Germany, such as the ones we offered in Göttingen. Due to limited time and resources, it is something that we were unable to implement – yet it would have been interesting to see the impact of such a measure.
- Keep it simple and time-efficient!
The students barely ever used Mahara as a platform to ask questions (for example, the Forum function was barely ever used.). They rather used the Events, wrote in our WhatsApp group or contacted the team directly via e-mail.
The same goes for Social Events: we achieved a higher participation rate by narrowing down the target group (from anyone from the life sciences at the seven universities of the program to just the current and former liveSciences³ exchange students) and involving the students more (by letting them choose the activities via a survey).
- It can be difficult to find a time frame that works for all participants when they come from different countries and universities with different semester beginning and ends. The report submission often coincided with exam phases, since the Events for Exchange Students were conceived as a way to accompany them throughout their abroad semester, which meant added stress for the students.
- It is also important to consider how the offered event benefits the participants.
For instance, fun activities can help them bond, and Science Slams or Networking Events can help them learn something new, network, ask important questions or even develop their presentation skills or get feedback on their research projects. Something we did not have the resources for was to invite more experts to teach students how to produce more videos or a podcast, but it can also be very helpful.
- Make your online meetings as interactive as possible. There are many digital tools you can use, such as Mentimeter, Flinga, etc., or methods (ice breakers; alternating between formats such as plenum and smaller groups or pairs in Breakout Rooms; explaining how to do something to the group by letting a student share their screen and guiding them through the process, etc.).
Prof. Dr. Hiltraud Casper-Hehne
Head of project
Dr. Anne Sennhenn
Telefon: +49 (0)551 39 21294
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