About a year ago, I was asked if I could help make a traditional scientific symposium (International Glaciology Symposium on High Mountain Asia) into something different. A group of glaciologists from ICIMOD, locally organizing the international scientific symposium, and the IGS scientific steering committee, wanted people to leave saying ‘Wow! That was a great conference!”
How could I resist?
Last month, after a lot of co-designing, back and forth, and many changes up until the last moment…we did it.
Here is a bit of our story. You can also see the tweets and some images at #IGSKTM
The main areas we wanted to focus on were:
1. Sense making.
Scientists are subjected to powerpoint presentations from morning to night, day after day. Typically there is very little time for questions, if at all. There are no discussions. Thus, participants leave a 5 day meeting possibly having seen 100’s of presentations yet having no time to digest them, let alone understand the bigger picture they might contribute to. We wanted to provide a legacy of learning – i.e. sense making of the content – for participants. They should leave remembering the key trends, patterns and emerging issues in their field of work.
After the daily keynote talk, tables took 5 minutes to create a newspaper headline.
Headline from a table discussion after a keynote in Black Carbon.
2. Friend making.
Despite spending 5-6 days at a conference, often far from home, participants are rarely given the opportunity to meet and network. People who know each other typically sit together at the group dinners and traditionally the sessions have people sitting in rows (classroom style or theatre style) which doesn’t lend itself to conversation aside from one or two neighbours. We wanted to ensure that people had ample time to meet and also help those who aren’t great at networking interact with their peers. Participants at this conference would hopefully leave having spoken to many new people, have the opportunity to find others working on similar fields of interest and simply increase their contacts and network professionally.
Participants could pin where they work. The online roster was a place to see who these people actually are!
People loved the poster sessions. We had a scavenger hunt at one to encourage people to find each other!
Leaving meetings tired and burnt out is not unique to science meetings. This is typical for most meeting goers and we wanted to make this one different. Rather than being tired at the end of the day, we wanted people to feel energized and excited. We strove to include sufficient content, discussion and fun to keep people going over 6 days talking about glaciers.
Here are some of the things we did to help shift a traditional scientific symposium into something people will remember:
- Less formality
- TV Talk show format to set the scene for the symposium (as opposed to traditional panel)
- Seating at round tables to encourage conversing with colleagues and meeting new people (see their faces, as opposed to traditional seating in rows) [people were really shocked when they entered the room]
- Large scale imagery in the venue to give a sense of the region despite meeting in Kathmandu (we were discussing the highest mountains in the world and we showed them!)
- Outputs and visuals from discussions posted in coffee break areas so people could congregate around something.
- Discussion and sense-making by participants for a greater synthesis of information
- Tables created news headlines after key note talks [they had 5 minutes to discuss the talk, create a headline and this was followed by 10 mins of Q&A]
- Tables worked on key questions throughout the day (after a set of science talks) that were later compiled and synthesized by session chairs and presented back to participants the following morning. [they had 10 mins after a set of talks to work on their synthesis questions as a table. Chairs created a daily summary to present in 5 minutes the following morning. They were very diligent.]
- A full synthesis is envisaged as part of a long editorial for the Annals of Glaciology and for further communication purposes. The start was put into a press release distributed by ICIMOD following the event.
- *Note we had to reduce the number of talks to have time for discussion (this took a lot of convincing) however we still managed to have 46 scientific talks plus 16 open space sessions (mentioned below) and the opening panel.
- Time for conversations that matter
- One morning was dedicated to open space, a technique where the participants create an agenda on the spot.
- Over 100 participants proposed 16 topics which became one hour sessions (eight per parallel session).
- Important conversations and connections were made. People’s interests and ideas were valued and appreciated.
- Time taken at the opening session and closing session to personally reflect on what you hope to get out of the symposium and what you learned. Participants were given time to share this with a friend, the table and the room. We used a technique called 1-2-4-all.
- Field trip midway (this is typical for and IGS and they like it…so we kept it!)
- Networking onsite and for the future
- A glaciologist scavenger hunt took place during the first poster session as a way to get people to learn about each other and connect with people they don’t normally talk to.
- A map was posted where people added where they work so they could see others working in their region.
- A roster was created where people added their name, contact email and research interests plus a photo. This will be sent out via email to help enable ongoing networking between the scientists.
- Each day participants were encouraged to sit at new tables with new people to help change their conversations for the synthesis as well as meet new colleagues.
Half a day was dedicated to participants creating their own agenda on topics that mattered to them. Small break out sessions of engaged people ensued.
Some areas to consider in the future:
- Longer poster sessions (in our case to accommodate the larger number of posters received). Perhaps timing the sessions at the end of the day would also make it easier to extend it for those who are interested. We had one at the end of the day however two were after lunch to help reduce the food coma issue. Though in retrospect people really loved the poster sessions and likely would have stayed late to continue their conversations had they all been at the end of the day.
- Questions from science talks could be re-organized. For example rather than giving 5 mins for questions directly after speakers, let tables speak for 3 minutes after a talk to gather specific questions as a table. Then after a set of talks take 10 minutes of questions. This idea was proposed by a participant who felt the questions were not as well thought out as the synthesis which allowed for discussion before hand.
- Include options for workshops on science communications. This is an idea being explored for future symposiums. How to make a great poster, give a presentation, get published, interact with the media and policy makers were all topics that emerged in our open space session.
- Add a few fields to the online registration so a roster can be given out at the start of the symposium to participants to help facilitate networking immediately.
It was a very rewarding experience to work with these scientists. They have so much knowledge and energy. It was nice to be able to set the container to help great conversations happen, to make sense of the immense information presented and to suggest ways for colleagues to continue their contact after the symposium ended. Wow! That was fun!
p.s. an ICIMOD photographer was taking gorgeous photos. I will update the blog if I can get a few his.