SIAM News Blog

A Case for Online Workshops in the Time of COVID-19

By Yemeen Ayub

Last week, my colleagues and I were tasked with role-playing as scientists who were having a stern conversation with policymakers. Everyone grinned at the humor of calling each other “sir,” “ma’am,” or “Mr. President.” Next on the schedule was tai chi, during which more than 60 participants backed away from their webcams to begin the ancient Chinese practice that dates back to the 12th century. Although it was only the first week, the summer school on “Dynamics and Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic” is already shaping up to be how most workshops will be run in the future.

Organized by the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) and the Mathematics and Climate Research Network (MCRN)—with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—this six-week workshop aims to teach students about mathematical epidemiology and its application to COVID-19. Roughly 40 students meet online every day for several hours in a variety of settings — from conferences via Zoom and group messaging through Slack to simultaneous video-watching sessions on Watch2Gether. Participants even received Tablets to simulate collaborative whiteboard spaces, like those in a traditional academic environment.

The application Sococo provides a meeting space for all the different applications that the summer school employs.
When programs such as this go virtual, the results tend to be more inclusive. Barriers like distance, health, and personal obligations often disappear. This was the case for one student, who joined our school from the hospital. Some online courses can also support more participants than in-person agendas, which must allocate funds for travel. This is beneficial, as previous attempts to enroll as many applicants in a particular program as possible tended to favor students inside the host country, due to international travel fees and paperwork. With a larger and more diverse population of students, any online program will flourish as participants from different backgrounds synergize and provide new insights.

However, not all aspects of internet-based research workshops are positive. Just because e-participants can see, hear, and write on whiteboards together does not mean that online experiences perfectly mirror in-person interactions. An online workday requires that everyone stay in one room nearly all day — a reality that some students have lamented. This space is often the room in which many people have spent most of quarantine. Some attendees have resorted to taking their meetings outside, where vibrant trees and sunlight comprise most of their backgrounds. Others have done so in spirit via Zoom’s virtual background feature, which transports users to mountain ranges, Utah’s natural stone arches, or even the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit. Unfortunately, virtual backgrounds do not help members who lack consistent internet connections or silent spaces for video calls. Future conferences can address these issues by providing support for cellular USB modems, rental offices, and caregivers. Doing so would help erase the inherent inequalities that prevent one from attending an online seminar.

Modeling COVID-19 and its subsequent impact will be a tough task, and participants of the AIM/MCRN summer school will have to overcome many novel challenges. Thankfully, a wide variety of lessons will best prepare them for anything — even talking to the president.

Yemeen Ayub is a mathematics doctoral student at George Mason University who is interested in statistical learning theory, dynamical systems, and algebra.

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