Middle school children may seem like unlikely ambassadors, and even less likely global health advocates. However, an international, collaborative interagency initiative, called the Zika Education and Prevention Project, is empowering school children around the world to combat disease outbreaks. Using crowd-sourcing, citizen science and new technologies, GLOBE, or the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program, is expanding our idea of science and diplomacy. In 2018, the Collaboratory partnered with GLOBE to connect student citizen scientists in four countries.
GLOBE is an international science and education program that gives students and the public the opportunity to participate in the scientific process using data crowdsourcing. Established 25 years ago, it serves as a tool to promote scientific discovery and environmental stewardship at local, regional, and global scales. GLOBE is primarily sponsored by NASA with additional support from the U.S. Department of State, National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The Collaboratory partnered with GLOBE to build additional public diplomacy elements into the program in alignment with the Zika Education and Prevention Project, by virtually connecting schools in Paraguay, Brazil, Thailand and Kenya. Zika is a virus passed through mosquitoes that currently does not have a vaccine or a cure. It can cause brain defects and has been linked to death in unborn babies. While there are no current Zika outbreaks reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the mosquitoes that carry the disease are known to live there. There are almost one hundred countries that have reported current or past transmission of Zika. The mosquito spreads other diseases such as malaria, dengue, West Nile, yellow fever, and chikungunya and kills more people than any other creature in the world.
The GLOBE Virtual Exchange Program allowed students to communicate with each other about Zika and their research on mosquito control. They used simple scientific tools to test standing water for mosquito larvae, and then used a smartphone app to map and eliminate mosquito habitat. The students shared their results, including photos and videos through social media and video chat. The Collaboratory brought in expert curators and designers to present to the students about mosquito-borne diseases, science communication and public health. The students also received training in health, technology, environmental surveillance and disease outbreak prevention.
In addition to the virtual exchange, some students were able to attend the GLOBE Learning Expedition in Ireland in July 2018, which brought together more than 400 participants from 40 countries to share research, engage in field studies and explore educational and cultural activities. There, the virtual exchange students were able to finally meet in person, although the feeling was that they already knew each other well via WhatsApp and Skype.
At the conclusion of the pilot, the Collaboratory developed the GLOBE Virtual Exchange Toolkit in collaboration with The GLOBE Program. GLOBE reviewed and provided input to the toolkit and created a webpage on the toolkit as well as other resources. This document has detailed instructions for recreating the program independently. The Collaboratory also gave two separate follow-on grants to the schools in Kenya and Brazil, both of which are creating science communication outreach about GLOBE and about Zika awareness and prevention in their communities. Currently, GLOBE schools are testing out the virtual tool kits and creating their own virtual exchanges.
The GLOBE Zika virtual exchange connected multiple federal agencies and classrooms across the world. Frequent travelers may understand that once abroad, we are all ambassadors for our home countries. As such, diplomatic relations (and science communication!) can be strengthened by increasing our global connections and exchanges.