SIAM News Blog

Virtual Summer Schools: Can We Make Them Work?

By Chris Jones and Hans Kaper

Summer schools are integral parts of students’ professional training in the mathematical sciences. Unfortunately, COVID-19 rendered in-person summer school experiences unfeasible this year. Having recently completed a six-week virtual summer school with 42 students who spanned four different time zones, we decided to reflect on the experience and summarize some of our takeaways.

The summer school on “Dynamics and Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic” was hosted by the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), a U.S. mathematical science research institute that is supported by the National Science Foundation. The program was organized in collaboration with the Mathematics and Climate Research Network (MCRN), a virtual research network that engages mathematicians in climate research. Chris Jones (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) led the online summer school, which ran from June 22 to July 31, 2020.

The idea for the summer school was proposed in early April of 2020, and the first announcement published on May 31. We originally planned to invite 20 advanced undergraduate and graduate students, each of whom would receive a stipend of $6,000. The school was meant to be very interactive, with structured working days consisting of large and small group discussions, one-on-one meetings, and time for individual work. All interactions were to take place online via web-based infrastructure.

As the number of applications kept growing—eventually reaching well over 500—AIM and the organizing committee decided to double the allotted number of participants. This change required some organizational adjustments. The organizers hired several fully-paid mentors—junior faculty and advanced graduate students—to assist the faculty leaders, in addition to two student assistants to identify any emerging issues and facilitate interactions among students, mentors, and leaders. In total, 59 people participated: 42 students, five mentors, 10 faculty leaders, and two assistants. The summer school also retained eight experts in mathematical epidemiology, statistics, medicine, and the information technology health industry. We all met for at least five hours each day, and everyone was on a first-name basis.


When organizing a virtual summer school, major challenges include building a sense of community and keeping participants engaged. An in-person environment addresses both of these issues naturally; everybody is in one place, often staying in the same building and meeting regularly, with the capacity for individual work as necessary. Video conferencing is the obvious solution, but too much screen time each day—in an attempt to replicate the “being together” of an in-person school—causes exhaustion among everyone.

Keeping these challenges in mind, we sought a platform that would allow us to be present and together without a constant Zoom meeting. Sococo offers such an environment by creating a virtual workspace that effectively simulates a real one (see Figure 1). The visual layout resembles an architect’s plan without the measurements but with other adornments that make it look inviting, such as tables, chairs, and the occasional plant. The 59 participants and eight experts (each represented by an avatar) had their own private offices where they could hang out. We could leave our office doors open or closed, and anybody could come in by either clicking on the space (if open) or knocking on the door (you even heard the “tap-tap”).

Figure 1. The Sococo platform creates a virtual workspace where participants can gather in team rooms, lounges, and even a kitchen and café. Here, groups meet in private offices.

The Sococo layout comprises meeting rooms, team rooms, lounges, and even a kitchen and café. There is a library to store references and a records room that holds documents of completed work; both are accessible from other spaces via clickable icons. We used the café to post the next day’s schedule and a list of names with contact information, and the kitchen for sign-up sheets and the daily blog. We all met together two or three times each day in the large “all hands” meeting room, where the daily assignments (readings, research, or videos) were posted on a bulletin board.

Sococo has a native video conferencing capability that is sufficient for small group meetings, such as an intimate conversation in a virtual office. But larger meetings require the use of Zoom, Webex, or Google Meet, which one can integrate into Sococo. When a participant begins a meeting, a Sococo pop-up dialog box invites everyone else in the room. With only one click, participants can enter the meeting with audio and video.

We used Slack, which can also be integrated into Sococo, for online chatting. Slack is particularly beneficial for a summer school like ours because it is organized by channels. Specialized interest groups that emerged throughout the program could just start a new channel.

Unfortunately, virtual platforms cannot truly replicate chance encounters in the corridor, which are unique to in-person meetings. However, we tried to engineer these encounters by stimulating visits among the participants during times such as lunch breaks. On the other hand, the virtual world offers possibilities that are not feasible—or at least not natural—in its physical counterpart. For example, several participants posted short personal videos about themselves with clickable links that other students could access from any location.

Hardware and Software

Students were required to use a tablet (iPad, Microsoft Surface, or Samsung tablet) and a digital pen or pencil. A $1,000 supplement to each stipend covered the cost of this hardware. During working sessions, students shared virtual whiteboards on Google Jamboard to jot down and explore ideas. These interactions mimicked the experience of meeting in an office and working on a blackboard together.

Daily Program

Each day, the summer school met from 11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and again from 3:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. EDT. Students were required to be on Sococo during these periods — “in the office” and available for meetings, either planned or spontaneous. The meeting times accommodated students in four time zones, from California to Puerto Rico. The daily program was bracketed by “all hands” meetings at 11:00 a.m. and 5:15 p.m., and each afternoon program included a 15-minute tai-chi session to keep everybody invigorated.

Program by Week

Since the topic of the summer school was new to most participants, we split the program into two parts. Students spent the first three weeks learning and formulating questions, and the last three weeks conducting research to address these questions.

Participants identified the questions through articles (many from SIAM News), online videos, and simulators. We employed various interactive exercises, such as role playing and anonymous online polling, to work through their suggestions. We also discovered that Watch2Gether—an app that allows multiple viewers to watch a video synchronously while stopping, restarting, speeding up, or slowing down the presentation—is a very useful platform for viewing online lectures. After quickly realizing that watching presentations with 50-60 people in one room was unwieldy and ineffective, we began assigning the videos as homework instead. Small groups of six or seven students then reviewed key points in Watch2Gether sessions the next morning (held concurrently with Jamboard sessions) to work through some of the calculations. This setup effectively allowed participants to learn the core material in a friendly and interactive environment, which perhaps might not have been so natural at an in-person school.

At the end of the third week, we finalized the research questions—posed by the students themselves—that framed the second half of the school. Small groups of two to five students self-organized around each research question and collaborated with a mentor and/or faculty leader, often calling upon the experts for online consultation and advice. During the program’s last days, each group delivered a 25-minute presentation and submitted their reports for the record.

For the sake of brevity, we neglected to detail many additional activities from the summer school’s six-week period. Of particular note were the extracurricular sessions on group dynamics, in-depth discussions on diversity and personal success, and fellowship applications. Activities outside of school hours also brought people together, including a movie night on Netflix Party. Further details are available on SIAM News Online.


Is a virtual summer school possible? The answer is clearly “yes.” Such an event might even have some significant advantages over an in-person program. For instance, we were able to keep 10 faculty members engaged for the entire six-week period (no one-week or cameo appearances). We could also repeatedly involve the experts and maintain their influence over the research directions. Having all students, leaders, mentors, and experts online had a surprising equalizing effect, and the cumulative result of the ensuing interactions led to strong connections. A number of research groups are still meeting to develop their projects, and some social events even occurred in August — including a weekly tea on Wednesday afternoons.

Figure 2. List of leaders and mentors who helped organize and run the summer school on “Dynamics and Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Our motivation for the virtual summer school stemmed from the fact that many graduate students had already arranged internships or other summer research activities that were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to offer these students an intellectual challenge and provide them with a stipend to get through an unprecedented summer. Holding the school virtually was key for this latter point, as we converted the funds for travel and lodging into stipends and accommodated many more students as a result.

We thank the many people who put in an extraordinary effort to make this school a success (see Figure 2). It stands as a model for the future.

Chris Jones is a research scientist at the Renaissance Computing Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the 2020 SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth Prize. Hans Kaper, founding chair of the SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth and editor-in-chief of SIAM News, is affiliate faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Georgetown University.

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