Capstones in the virtual age

How do you properly fete your senior majors during a pandemic year? That’s the question I’m pondering, as the Person In Charge Of The Capstone Experience (aka “Comps Czar”) in my department.

In non-pandemic times, such a celebration looks something like this:

  • We gather everyone together — senior majors, friends, family, faculty members from our department, faculty members from other departments, teammates, coaches, Northfield community members, sometimes even an appearance by our college president — in the Weitz Center on a Saturday morning/early afternoon.
  • We hear lightning talks from all of the Comps teams in the Weitz Cinema. (This is so everyone has a chance to see what the other groups did, since no one can see every talk.)
  • We stage multiple tracks of longer talks in various rooms throughout the Weitz Center throughout the morning and early afternoon.
  • We feed our guests — coffee and pastries in the morning, lunch towards the end of the day.

We do as much as we can to make the day feel like a celebration of the hard work our majors put in, not just to their Comps projects, but in their entire CS major career.

Up until last year, all of our Comps projects took place Fall and Winter terms. Last year, and again this year, we gave students the option of Fall/Winter or Winter/Spring Comps, partly to give students (and faculty!) more flexibility in completing the major and going on off-campus study programs.

This means that last year, we held a completely “normal” gala in late February for our Fall/Winter groups…and scrambled to assemble ad-hoc online talks in May for our Winter/Spring groups.

Now, of course, we have the benefit of foresight — no large-scale, in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future. Which means we can actually plan for an online celebration. Which, yay, planning! But at the same time, yikes! How do we pull this off?

The answer to how well we manage to pull this off is still a couple of weeks out. But as the date approaches, I thought it would be worthwhile to share how I’ve approached planning a large-scale virtual event.

First, what are the guiding principles under which I’m operating?

  1. The event must have the feel of a community celebration of our students and their accomplishments. This is my top priority.
  2. The event must allow students to present their work to the public in a way that is meaningful to them.
  3. The event must be accessible to a wide audience. Sure, we could do some cool back channel-y things in Discord or replicate between-tracks conversations in Gather.town. But if we want friends, family, and people outside of the CS universe to feel welcome and comfortable, best to limit the number of technologies we ask them to navigate.
  4. The event must not tax our audience unnecessarily. “Zoom fatigue” is a thing, and we need to be cognizant of this while carrying this event out.

Second, how am I putting these guiding principles into practice?

  1. Community celebration feel: I’m keeping the same structure as an in-person Comps Gala: starting the day with lightning talks (pre-recorded!) from all of the teams, talk tracks, etc. I also decided to keep the Gala on a Saturday, so that we could schedule all of the talks on the same day and have it “feel” like Comps in a “normal” year. Basically, we didn’t have to change this, so I chose not to change it.
  2. Present work in a meaningful way. We tend to steer our students towards the “traditional talk” structure when presenting at the Gala, probably because of inertia more than anything else. This year, we’re allowing students more latitude in how they present their results. If they want to pre-record and play back their talk while answering questions live in the chat? Wonderful. How about a sustained demo? OK! I suspect most if not all of the teams will default to a traditional talk because it’s more familiar to them, but they may decide to forgo slides for other visuals, include more short videos, or be a bit creative in other ways. Another plus: students don’t have to structure their talks around the technology available in a particular classroom space, and don’t have to try and swap laptops in and out during the presentation, which frees up considerable mental energy.
  3. Accessible to a wide audience. Here I’m going with the “Zoom is a universal technology” philosophy, so that’s all we’re using. Still, there were a nontrivial number of decisions to make around the use of Zoom: is each track its own Zoom meeting? or each talk? should we have a “hallway chatter” breakout room where people can gather between tracks? I decided on a single Zoom meeting, with breakout rooms for each track and one for “hallway chatter”. There will be at least 2 CS faculty in each breakout room to handle any shenanigans that might occur. One thing I am curious to see: will more people attend the Gala, given that no one has to travel to or navigate a physical site to participate?
  4. Acknowledge “Zoom fatigue”. I decided to slightly shorten the length of each track and lengthen each break, from 40 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 10 minute break to 30-35 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 15 minute break. It’s not a lot, but it “feels” more manageable, particularly for those of us staring down an entire morning of talk attendance. The shorter tracks might also make someone on the fence about attending more apt to attend, since the time commitment is smaller and they can dip in and out of the Gala rather than committing a half day to it.

Will this work? Who knows? At a minimum, we’ll have a space for all of our students to gather and show off their work to the community, a community which may or may not resemble the communities of Comps Galas past. As host and emcee of the event, I’m thinking of ways to welcome the community that will establish that community celebration vibe. And as someone who’s organized and run these events before, I’m eager to see what possibilities this virtual medium presents that we could perhaps carry forward when our Galas can be in person again.

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