Revitalizing the culture of science workshops with battles and wheatgrass shots

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Last month I facilitated a science workshop in Montpellier, which brought together a community of experts from around the world. There were many specialists represented, including software developers, researchers in both hard and social sciences, breeders, professors and private sector representatives. Participants put their heads together in brainstorming ways to streamline research in the world of open access, big data striving for future science to be more democratic via FAIR practices. Fair practices meaning, having data is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable.

I was honored to help guide a remarkable brain powered group through the weekly segments who brought together not only professional expertise, but a myriad of culture and language aspects that was dynamic.

All in the name of changing the way we view the planet, considering the challenges, and re-designing food systems to feed the world in the future, I think there needs to be a way to change an antiquate science workshop concept to capitalize on dynamics, maximize the workshop outputs. The following are some of my recommendations:

PowerPoint not allowed: Or limit to slides with no words, only images, graphs, photos. (See more on my RIP PPT post)

Obey the deadline or…

For those who decide to present in PPT style, ensure there is a final deadline and stick to it. If it can’t be met, presenters will have to prepare clear talking points and be the best visual to stand out.

So many presenters are juggling 1 million commitments, that the presos are completed sometimes minutes before they present! Many times, the presentation is sub-par and not appropriate for the audience (because it was an entirely used slide deck for a different group of people) or it 10 slides filled with writing because it’s been copy and pasted from a written document.  Too many words, are distracting. Speeding through slides is hard to follow. Slides that are off topic or obscure ensure you will lose the audience. Who is even listening to the presenter anymore?

1st point, 2nd point, 3rd point, GO!

Ask the presenter in advance their three main points of their presentation. Set a time limit. This should help the presenter focus their talk, as well as give you a quick understanding of how their talk fits into your overall program.

Facilitate the muli-lingual:

Inevitably English becomes the official language of many international events, also due to the fact most research is conducted, presented and published in English.  However, you will note how those who speak the same language will gravitate to one another. Naturally we are most comfortable in our mother tongue. In many cases, like my own, you may speak different languages which opens up the opportunities to engage with others.

I’d recommend adding to your workshop badge the flags of countries to indicate which languages you speak. Similar to what is done in the hotel industry. Then participants can easily distinguish who speaks what language.

Quiz show or terminology side line activity

When you bring together participants from multidisciplinary areas that are contributing to a bigger project, there is always a mix of definitions for the same concepts. Often, presenters will spend the first part of their presentation highlighting main concepts and defining them in the context of their work.

Perhaps we could make this topic more active and fun but asking the group how they define certain terms and concepts. If there isn’t space in a plenary setting, it is certainly something to add to the side lines for discussion and commentary.

No tech policy

I know I will get push back here, but it is incredible to me the amount of time and effort, and funding, that is invested in conferences and half of the audience is working on another report or e-mailing. Also, I noticed, when there is time for questions, not many people were inclined to participate. I am not opposed to multi-tasking, but if you are engaged completely in something else, why waste time and money to be physically present when your mind is elsewhere. Maybe it is better to join the live-stream?

I know some people take notes on their computers, but there is something less distracting for a presenter to see someone jotting notes in their paper notebook, rather than their MAC notebook. When I see computer, I instantly think, “This person is note listening to me”, even if they are jotting notes on what I’m saying.

What about a battle?

Rappers go up on stage and go at it on their words. What about on our science perspectives? Something controversial, essentially a debate but maybe a bit of music could bring out the creativity. Panels are good, but battles, or maybe we should call them debates, may offer space for discussing opposing thoughts or expression of their current work in the context of the workshop.

 Flashtalks, Art exhibit

Instead of everyone reclined in their comfy theatre seat in a plenary session, why not set up each preso like a true flash talk, use a prop to explain your talk (no, not a big poster with all your research written in 10 font on the poster board), but a tool or a live demo. I’d also recommend a building in rehersal time to ensure you can smoothly articulate your work. This is especially helpful when you are presenting in a language that you are not comfortable speaking in and also for those who struggle in larger group talks.

Kombucha, wheatgrass shots, oxygen

There’s so much coffee! Can we find another way to get a boost/life focus rather than cups and cups and cups of coffee? Perhaps most budgets don’t allow for a switch here, and I know coffee is as much for the pick me up as it is offered for the comfort factor. I think it is worth experimenting here.

Accommodate cultures

Ramadan commenced in the middle of this year’s conference. I recently read an article on an event where small boxes of dates were shared with participants to break the fast at the end of the day together. It’s an extra planning step, but a small detail that goes a long way.

What do you think? How can science workshops change for the better? Should they? Is the inherent culture of science conferences too difficult to change?