Our First Virtual Celebration

May 1, 2020

Are you ready for a new way to Celebrate? While the ACM-W community was able to see two Celebrations in February, by mid-March many current and upcoming Celebrations were canceled due to the pandemic. However, one adventurous organizer for the Women in Computing Celebrations at University of Minnesota Duluth (MinneWIC), Arshia Khan (Associate Professor of Computer Science), decided to launch the first virtual Celebrations in North America. 

“We were scheduled to have a 1.5-day conference on March 20th and 21st, 2020. March 20th was our TensorFlow workshop, while the conference was on March 21st, ” says Khan, who also serves as chair of the Women in Computing committee.

“This was our second year hosting this conference, and I did not want to cancel it since it is very beneficial to our students. We had the first event (Undergraduate Research Workshop), where students worked with faculty mentors on various research projects. The conference culminated these projects with students presenting their research,” she continued. “We had to make sure the students’ almost yearlong work was acknowledged.”

This Celebration was held on Saturday, March 21st, with a welcome address from Dr. Wendy Reed followed by the keynote speaker, Katherine Rasley. 

UMD WiC Celebrations Saturday, March 21st
8:30am Welcome: Dr. Wendy Reed
8:45am Keynote Speaker: Katherine Rasley
10:00am Research Workshop: Dr. Alexis Elder
11:00am Graduate Program Panel
12:00pm Industry Panel
1:00pm Poster Presentations
2:00pm Lightning Talks

Khan said that the virtual Celebrations went very well, with 55 participants of the 98 originally registered. “The panels, keynote, and research presentations were very well received. I received several emails after the event commenting on how informational this conference was. ” 

From left to right – Arshia Khan, with students Yumna Anwar, Mahsa Soufineyestani, and Janna Madden. Women from the University of Minnesota DuluthWomen In Computing (WIC) group learn about working on an assistive robot to aid in dementia care. This project attracts many students as they see the benefit to people affected with dementia and they feel they are not only having fun while learning but also helping.

But don’t take Khan’s word for it. She received positive feedback from students who were able to attend. One participant wrote, “I wanted to say thank you for still hosting it over Zoom, even though we were unable to meet.  I really enjoyed hearing about the research with the robot and the dementia patients. I find it very interesting to see how the voice and gender of the robot affect the patients’ interaction with it while not changing anything else.”  

“I enjoyed hearing the different perspectives of those in research and their time in industry. I also found listening to what women experience in not just grad school, but in the workplace as well very informative,” another student wrote. “I could definitely relate to some of those feelings as the only Black student in most, if not all, of my CS courses.”

If other Celebration coordinators are thinking about canceling, Khan recommends trying the virtual Celebration with a tight agenda. “I was very afraid before the event and was questioning my decision to still go ahead, but at the same time had to believe that the participants would join and the agenda would move forward.”

If you do think about moving ahead with a virtual Celebration (and we hope you do!), Khan’s recommendations are:

  • Don’t postpone. Go ahead with the conference. You will be amazed at how well it will go.
  • Have several co-hosts to help manage and mute anyone if there is noise.
  • Run a test-run with all the speakers and panelists. Give them some training on how to install and use Zoom, if they don’t already know. 
  • Make sure all the materials such as speaker slides and research posters are  arranged in the order of use and are easily accessible to you and anyone assisting you.
  • My grad student and I took turns sharing our screen with the slides and research posters so as to avoid any lag in between. There was no dead time.
  • Imagine all possible scenarios of things going wrong and prepare for them. Speak with the speakers and panelists regarding how they will be handled.
  • Make sure the panelists and the moderator know how the sessions will be handled so everyone is on the same page.

Khan concludes, “I had a couple of my colleagues and grad students as co-hosts to help manage the sessions. There was a lot of planning, but it is amazing how smooth it went.”

If you do hold a virtual Celebration, we would love to hear thoughts and feedback from you and your students. You can always reach us at acm-w-na@volunteer.acm.org

Arshia Khan is an Associate Professor of Computer Science, University of Minnesota Duluth. In addition to coordinating and running the 2020 Celebrations virtually, she is the faculty advisor for the ACM-W Student Chapter at her University.

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