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April 6, 2020

Sharing knowledge globally in a time of crisis

First established more than 150 years ago, land-grant universities such as Michigan State University are dedicated to ensure that all residents of the United States are provided with the knowledge they need to work productively, succeed individually and contribute to the common good of their country. 

Through the years, this land-grant model has expanded to respond to ever greater challenges around the globe.

The COVID-19 crisis is arguably one of the greatest challenges we have faced.  It has halted travel, quarantined people, disproportionately harmed the poorest populations and changed the way we work together. 

Fear and uncertainty are rampant, making information and education transfer even more critical. In such a restrictive and chaotic environment how can those committed to this land-grant tradition respond effectively?

For the past decade, Scientific Animations Without Borders, or SAWBO, a currently MSU-based program has been working in online spaces with global experts to create universally identified imagery animations with information and educational content, place it in numerous languages and share it across a global network for local distribution via virtual mechanisms. 

In this way, SAWBO has created a seamless system of knowledge sharing from end to end without face-to-face interaction. 

Land-grant institutions must prepare students to be global collaborative learners and visionary change-makers. 

The Residential College in Arts in Humanities at MSU is leading this change. RCAH students examine critical issues through collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and a common set of ethics that value social justice, sustainability and inclusion.

A year ago, RCAH and SAWBO joined forces to create and deploy educational content for peace and reconciliation in Mali to be disseminated to people without direct internet access.

That collaboration with the Malian Commission for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation has brought community groups and international non-governmental organizations together with the commission to sensitize local populations to the history of civil war and violence in Mali and the need for a program of transitional justice. This project began in December 2019 and is ongoing.

With the advent of COVID-19, the RCAH-SAWBO team used their experience in peacebuilding together to rapidly focus on the creation of new COVID-19 educational content. 

The first animation, Protecting Yourself From Coronavirus, was released on March 24 to global partners. Through this animation, which was created in a 100% virtual space, critical health information can be broadcast via online networks to reach millions across the globe with and without direct internet access. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to rethink the land-grant model and how we can have a positive impact. It will have to be a model with a strong presence in virtual space,” said Stephen Esquith, dean of RCAH. “SAWBO exemplifies this model. By combining this technology with creativity, critical thinking and experience in global civic engagement, we have a powerful tool to contain the pandemic in the most vulnerable parts of the world. We know these are not two separate worlds, which means that as new waves of the virus appear, for example, in Africa, transmission between rich and poor countries will increase.”

According to the Afrobarometer, also based at MSU, “More than half of all Africans go without needed medical care at least once in a given year. Even before the threat of overwhelming demand due to COVID-19, about one in five Africans faced a frequent lack of needed health-care services, including almost two-thirds of the poorest citizens.” 

Julia Bello-Bravo, SAWBO co-creator and assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition agrees. “SAWBO has been working for the past decade, in virtual space, from student engagement, research, content creation and finally impact in the field.”

Bello-Bravo states that there is a multiplicative effect of what has been taught in the classroom.  “When we and SAWBO were located at the University of Illinois, I taught a class on this exact type of approach for international development, and we trained students in the SAWBO lab.”  

It is these same former students, currently working in Chicago, who came together to create the COVID-19 animation," Barry Pittendrigh, SAWBO co-creator and MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Entomology said. “We phoned them up and told them, we are getting the ‘band’ back together and are on a mission from MSU. They leaped into action, producing the animation from start to finish in just over a week, between their day jobs." 

The team also enlisted expert medical feedback from Beth Alexander, senior advisor to the Provost at MSU, as well as several development experts external to MSU.  

“The whole point of SAWBO is to draw on the goodwill of expert communities,” Pittendrigh said. “The willingness of experts like Alexander to volunteer their time and expertise is what allowed the RCAH-SAWBO team to get this content completed quickly and accurately.” 

This first COVID-19 animation is currently available in a dozen languages with SAWBO adding more daily, as volunteers step forward to provide translation services. 

“SAWBO relies on volunteers to translate and record content into new languages — something we can do all from the comfort and safety of their homes,” says Pittendrigh.

SAWBO animations can be shared by platforms like WhatsApp with people around the world who can, in turn, share it.

“Think of it as a pyramid approach, but in a good way, sharing information that people need,” Pittendrigh said. “Many people at MSU have large global networks, and with a few clicks of a button, they can share such content through these networks locally, nationally, and globally. We are asking people from MSU; students, faculty and staff to contact us, so we can forward materials that they can distribute through their WhatsApp networks or through other ways that they share online with people in other parts of the world.” 

It is also important to note that Bello-Bravo’s research, for the past decade, has been focused on demonstrating the effectiveness of this educational approach in the field in developing nation countries.  

The COVID-19 animation through SAWBO’s existing WhatsApp network showed immediate results. 

“We received texts back, within an hour of releasing the animation, showing people half-way around the world watching the video and following salient instructions given in the animation,” says Bello-Bravo.

The language/accent variants available as of today, thanks to the volunteer network, include:

For information on how to volunteer or how share this content, contact SAWBO at

By: Janet Fierro