Changing our Plantae Fellows Program from Exclusive to Inclusive

In December, we wrapped up the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. We’ll be recruiting for Cohort Two later this year for a start date of January 2019.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to share reflections from the 2017 Fellows on the Trellis blog. In today’s post, Melanie Binder discusses the Plantae Fellows Program. You can catch up on all posts by the Fellows here.

Posted by Melanie Binder, Community Engagement Manager and Social Media Coordinator for the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)

Plantae is the global community and knowledge hub for plant scientists and was developed to address the need for a community and knowledge foundation for the global plant science community. The concept for Plantae was based on input and ideas from members of our plant science community. It is a crowdsourced initiative powered by American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) in collaboration with the Global Plant Council and represents our ongoing commitment to the plant science community.

Plantae is for everyone in the plant science community regardless of location or career phase, from plant science students to educators and researchers to authors, editors and professionals.

How do you support your volunteer program? Image provided by Melanie Binder
How do you support your volunteer programs?
Image provided by Melanie Binder

Since one of the fundamental goals of Plantae is to create a vibrant and engaging global plant science community based on crowdsourced content, this also became one of our biggest challenges.  While our small staff initially seeded pertinent plant science content to Plantae, we also knew that in order to reach the next engagement phase, we needed to include some highly engaged contributors located in various areas of the world. This concept grew into a pilot Plantae Fellows program, which started as a strictly volunteer program with little to no budget. However, this program would offer our enthusiastic participants a place to sharpen their communication and content creation skills, while collaborating with other plant scientists on a global level. By sharing their individual perspectives on Plantae, we hoped this would amplify new and relevant content to our ever-growing Plantae community.

In the Fall of 2016, after reviewing close to 100 applications and going through 2 rounds of a screening process,  we selected 15 web-savvy and articulate Fellows that were located all over the world. This is one of the hallmarks of our Fellows program – to bring together highly engaged individuals who are willing to highlight and promote relevant information in various plant-related fields from their geographic area. Why did we limit this to 15 Fellows? Looking back on this, I am not sure! I believe we wanted our (very) small staff to be able to successfully facilitate the flow of content from the Fellows, engage them in discussions and work with them closely to develop new content products and ideas.  Since this was the inaugural class, 15 seemed manageable. The term for our Plantae Fellows is one year, on a volunteer basis.

Here are some of the suggested tasks for our Plantae Fellows:

  • Start/facilitate discussions tailored to specific networks
  • Contribute summaries to the What We’re Reading series
  • Link to relevant events or news from the community, as well as other resources in Plantae
  • Curate or develop resources specific to networks and collections
  • Answer questions (or, better yet, nudge others to do the same)
  • Share and engage in important discussions with the rest of the Plantae community
  • Participate in quarterly Fellows virtual meet-ups
  • And other activities they come up with

Our inaugural class of Plantae Fellows was a success.  Quite a few of our Fellows became active participants within the community and were also extremely valuable contributors to our What We’re Reading weekly series. Our Fellows also provided our team with critical platform feedback and engaged in product development discussions. A few of our Fellows have stayed involved in other areas of Plantae, such as being selected for our Plantae Steering Committee.

When we opened up the applications for our 2017 Plantae Fellows class, we had just completed a re-launch of Plantae to a platform that provided new and enhanced content products and collaboration tools.  The re-launch also made engagement easier and allowed us to amplify content from the platform to our social media networks. Our initial goal was to accept 15 individuals to our Fellows class as in 2016. Once again, we received close to 100 applications and once again, we were working with little to no budget to run this program. After 2 rounds of a selection process that included writing samples, we were impressed by the multitude of web-savvy and outstanding candidates. Our staff narrowed the list to 35 applicants located in various geographic areas of the world. They impressed us  with their array of education level, interests in plant science and the quality of their written communication skills.

We struggled with how to narrow this talented final pool of applicants down to 15 Fellows and started to entertain the idea of having a larger class. Then we went back to the fundamentals of Plantae: to create a vibrant and engaging global plant science community based on crowdsourced content. If this is our goal, why should we limit the amount of Fellows for this upcoming class to 15?

In the end, our team decided that instead of being exclusive, we could have a very valuable impact on our community if we became inclusive. And since this decision would not affect our budget, we decided that this was the best path. This means we would need to develop a better way to track output, but If we are fortunate enough to have such talented and enthusiastic individuals apply to this program, why should we limit the potential for excellent content, collaboration and discussion by not accepting all of them? Our goal for Plantae is to build and grow a vibrant crowdsourced community, and it starts with our passionate Plantae Fellows.

While our Fellows group more than doubled in size, so have their contributions and their ideas. Not only have many of them participated in content curation, engaged in discussions on Plantae and assisted in launching new networks, our Fellows created and/or contributed to a new resource collection for early-career plant scientists, guest-edited the weekly What We’re Reading series, and developed a new monthly community virtual chat. Applications for our next class of Plantae Fellows open soon, and we have not set a limit as to class size. We will again strive to include the individuals who have the best potential to make a valuable, engaged  impact in growing our community.