Choose Development! chooses Trellis: starting a new online community

We’re now mid-way through the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from their training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Today, Fellow Marsha Lucas describes the process of creating a new online community with Trellis.

Posted by Marsha Lucas, Publications and Communications Coordinator at the Society for Developmental Biology

Blue egg shell on the ground
Hatched” by Kaarina Dillabough under CC BY-SA 2.0

This year the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) decided to create an online community for their Choose Development! summer research program. Choose Development! matches undergraduate students from underrepresented groups to labs of SDB members for 10 weeks of summer research. Fellows are spread out in labs across the country and only meet in person at the SDB annual meeting the following summer.

A Trellis group offered a way for fellows to connect with each other well before the SDB annual meeting. It also provided a platform to fulfill one of the program’s major goals: to provide long-term mentoring of fellows and help them navigate a path towards graduate school.

The AAAS Community Engagement Fellowship provided so many tools to make this Trellis group a success. Below are a few key points I’ve picked up that were critical in getting our online community off the ground.


Identify shared values of the community

Before I could create the Choose Development! online community, I had to truly understand the purpose of its existence. Throughout the AAAS CEFP January training, the concept of “shared purpose” and “shared value” kept hitting home. Ted McEnroe of the Community Roundtable defined “community” as “a group of people with unique shared values, behaviors and artifacts.”

What is bringing this group of people together? What are their shared values?  Why are they part of the Choose Development! program? It was important to create an online community that supported the purpose and values of SDB, its membership, and the underrepresented students we wished to attract into the field.

The overall goal of the Choose Development program is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students and students with disabilities in the field of developmental biology. Towards that end, we identified several goals for the Trellis group: (1) to build a sense of community, (2) to share our enthusiasm and knowledge of developmental biology, and (3) to help navigate a path towards graduate school.

According to the 2016 State of Scientific Community Management Survey defining shared values drives success in a community.

 

Content doesn’t just happen (at least not yet anyway)

One of the biggest challenges to starting a group is creating content that supports the mission of the community. According to the community lifecycle, in the inception stage, the community manager initiates most of the activity in the community. With this in mind, I took a methodical approach to creating content for our group.

I first conducted a content audit. This was a survey of all the content that we produce for our members, particularly on our website—reports, interviews, news items, images, movies. I also reviewed our social media posts and the content of our email blasts. After cataloguing these items, I looked for specific content that supported the Choose Development! group’s goals. We already had content that could be repurposed in the Trellis group as discussion topics, events, and resources for the group library.

The second thing I did was create a content calendar. It was helpful to plan out posts a couple weeks in advance across all of our groups. This was important to keep the group activity level consistent with fresh material. The content calendar also mapped out which content supported which goal so I could visualize where there may be deficiencies that should be addressed.

Finally, I “pillared” my content. What I mean by this is much of the content I created for our private Choose Development! Trellis group was also relevant to the larger SDB community. However, our larger membership could not access the private Trellis group discussions. To solve this problem, I reformatted the content as a news item on our website or broke it down into smaller digestible pieces for a social media post on Twitter or Facebook. This meant the content I created reached a larger audience and hopefully benefited more people.

 

Utilize in-person and virtual gatherings for community growth

Before the fellows began their summer research, we did a virtual meet and greet via Zoom video conferencing. Matching a face and voice to the names in our online community was helpful in building a real sense of community. We used Zoom for Trellis tutorials, a mentor workshop, and for exchanges with former fellows about deciding between graduate school and medical school. As a result of these virtual gatherings, activity in our online community jumped. I was suddenly not the only person creating discussions in our group—fellows were starting them too.

Going back to the idea that content doesn’t just happen, I can’t over emphasize the importance of personally inviting individual members of the community to contribute to the group. I often nudged fellows to write posts about their experiences or reflections on a virtual discussion we had. Their summaries were important records for our program, but also provided much needed content for our group. I also nudged program directors to use the online community to communicate with the fellows and mentors instead of sending group emails. Small behavior changes like this greatly influenced growth of the community.

In closing, I must confess that maintaining each of these strategies is a challenge particularly for a community manger that wears many hats. However, these are a few things that worked to build my community that I can continue to go back to again and again.

Want to learn more about what the CEFP Fellows are up to? You can find all of their posts here.

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