ComSciCon 2020 is Going Virtual!

May 4, 2020

by Stephanie Hamilton, on behalf of the ComSciCon 2020 Program Organizing Committee

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions...and ComSciCon 2020 will join the wave of virtual conferences now happening as a result of COVID-19. To protect the safety of attendees, invited speakers, and organizers alike, our Flagship conference will be moving online.

We don’t make this decision lightly because we recognize the value and importance of face-to-face interactions, especially in a field like science communication. But we also didn’t feel that cancelling the conference altogether was the right solution. ComSciCon 2020 will therefore take place via Zoom and Slack from June 11-14, 2020.

Tools We’ll Use

There are a plethora of virtual conferencing tools available at this point, so once we made the decision to move virtual, we then had to decide how to move virtual. In order to narrow down our options, we asked ourselves a few questions:

  • What are we ultimately trying to achieve with the event, and how important is personal interaction?
  • What functionality does each platform offer?
  • How much time or bandwidth do we have to train presenters and participants on the tech?

With these questions in mind, we weighed our options: Zoom vs. Crowdcast vs. something else, and Slack vs. Discord for chat discussions.

Ultimately, we decided platform familiarity was among our most important considerations. Zoom’s breakout rooms also make any parallel programming relatively straightforward. Furthermore, Crowdcast only allows participants to communicate via a sidebar chat window, whereas we wanted participants to have more of a face-to-face experience. With these goals in mind, we are moving forward with Zoom as our conferencing platform and Slack as our chat platform. Participants’ ability to get to know each other beforehand and stay in touch afterward is also an added benefit of using Slack.

We’re committed to making our virtual event accessible and are looking into closed captioning and other options for Zoom. We will also reach out to attendees to ensure we will meet their needs.

The Program

ComSciCon 2020 will consist of panels, workshops, and a keynote presentation as in past years, but programming will span only ~5-6 hours each day to accommodate participants attending from varying time zones. The two hallmarks of ComSciCon---the ~60-second pop talks akin to elevator pitches and the Write-a-thon in which participants produce an original piece of science writing---will also remain part of the programming. Finally, we are working on the logistics of holding a virtual poster session, where participants will be able to share their science communication work with peers.

And what is a conference without coffee breaks? The virtual ComSciCon experience will include meal and coffee breaks, where attendees will break into smaller groups via Zoom to network. We’ll also feature a virtual happy hour for additional networking following one of the conference days.

We are additionally excited to announce that we will be broadcasting the keynote presentation, which will be given by Mary Poffenroth, via YouTube! Virtual conferences offer a natural pathway to broadcasting to a wider audience, and we’re excited to take advantage of this opportunity to cultivate our science communication community.

What This Means

While ComSciCon always includes at least partial travel funding, lodging, and meals for attendees, the time commitment may still prohibit some graduate students from attending an in-person event. We are excited to explore the arena of virtual conferencing, and we plan to take new tools and lessons learned forward into future conference years (e.g. live-streaming our keynote event).

Our goal is to make this year’s virtual experience every bit the equal of our traditional, in-person events in terms of the value delivered to attendees. But we do recognize that a virtual experience is different from an in-person experience.  So, we will offer accepted applicants the opportunity to withdraw from this year’s event and re-apply for our in-person Flagship conference next year if they prefer. 

We’re excited for what the coming months will bring in this transition to an online conference and what lies in store for future years as a result! Please stay tuned to this space for additional conference updates.

We want to thank ComSciCon’s terrific sponsors who are making our 2020 Flagship event possible. Those include the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences, MIT Office of Graduate Education, American Astronomical Society, American Chemical Society, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, University of Maryland Online Certificate Program in Science Communication, and Science Careers, and our fiscal sponsor Community Initiatives. Lastly, we thank Emerson College, which had been set to host our in-person event - their team has been terrific to work with and we regret that we cannot join them in person this year.