Between October 2020 and March 2021, I organised a series of six International Wind Engineering Seminars, through the University of Birmingham, my employer before I retired. These were sponsored by the International Association of Wind Engineering (IAWE) and delivered via Zoom. On the web page for this seminar series, I give the justification for organising it as follows.
“Because of the Covid19 pandemic, opportunities for the international wind engineering community to meet physically have been very much restricted and are likely to remain so for at least the next year. To enable the community to continue to interact with each other, at least in a virtual way, the University of Birmingham is organizing a series of six seminars via Zoom from October 2020 to March 2021.”
In this post, I want to reflect on how these seminars were delivered and received, what lessons might be learnt, and ask some questions concerning the future.
Each seminar consisted of a main speaker, followed by either a panel discussion or between two and four shorter presentations. The dates and topics are given in table 1. As these seminars were set up in some haste in August / September 2020, I mainly called upon my circle of contacts to be the main speakers at the events, and they suggested other speakers or panel members. I am indebted to all the speakers for taking part and spending considerable time in preparation. The nature of the delivery and follow up evolved over the course of the series. After the first seminar it became clear that I could not both chair the sessions and organise the questions in Chat to put to the speakers. Thus, from seminars 2 to 6, I was assisted by Grace Yan from Missouri who collated all the questions that were put on Chat and forwarded them to me to put to the speakers. Her help was hugely appreciated. For seminars 3, 4 and 6 the presenters and panelists were also asked to provide written answers to questions, and these were posted on the web pages that were for each of the seminars. All the presentations (and for seminars 5 and 6 the questions and answers) were recorded using the Zoom Record function and these recordings were place on my YouTube site and linked to the appropriate page. These pages also included talk abstracts and speaker biographies. After the third seminar I realised that YouTube could not be accessed from all parts of the world, so a link to the Zoom cloud versions was also given. From seminar 4 onwards, these could also be downloaded as required. The time chosen for the seminars (after the first) was 12.00 UK time, this being the best compromise for most time zones, with the exception of the west coast of the America and Australasia. I tried to institute a separate Q and A session for these time zones a day or so after the seminar, but there was insufficient take up to make it worthwhile. Thus the whole process was a considerable learning experience for me.
Table 1 Seminar dates, titles and speakers
It must be mentioned at this point that the third seminar occurred shortly after the death of Prof Giovanni Solari, who was instrumental in the setting up of the IAWE, and the speaker, Prof Kareem, paid tribute to him in his talk.
Table 2 shows the bare statistics for the seminars. The size of the distribution list for publicity grew through the series from the original 688 of the mailing list for the abortive BBAA conference to 1525 for seminar 6. By seminar 3 the size of the list became so large that my e mail account was temporarily stopped as it was thought it had been hacked and was sending out spam. Thereafter I sent the information around in smaller batches. The number of registrants varied between 279 and 616, although only around 50 to 70% of these actually connected. The number of video views was also encouraging although again one must interpret these numbers cautiously as only around 20 to 30% of the views were for more than a few minutes. Note that these statistics are up to March 14th 2021 only, and as the views continued for several months after each seminar, the number of video views for the 2021 seminars will not be the final values.
Table 2 Seminar statistics (up to March 14th 2021)
Table 3 shows a breakdown of the views of the seminar web pages by month (which includes links to the videos). As expected these peak just before and just after the seminar, but all the seminars attract a significant number of views for a number of months after the event, which suggest that the subject matter is of ongoing interest. Again, note that this date only extends to the middle of March 2021,and a significant number of views could be expected for the later seminars after this date.
Table 3 Views of seminar web pages (up to March 15th 2021)
Table 4 shows the location of those who registered, as far as could be judged from email addresses. The generic .com address contains registrants from a wide variety of countries, and this rather skews the results. Nonetheless, it can be seen that whilst those countries where wind engineering is well established are well represented, a very wide range of countries was represented overall.
Table 4 Locations of registrants
Thus the numbers suggest that there was a significant number of wind engineers around the world who appreciated the seminar series and found them useful, and indeed that is what has been suggested by the informal feedback I have received. Again, caution is required to avoid over interpretation – the level of engagement with online seminars is likely to be much less than with in person presentations – I for one tend to do things such as checking my e mail / cricket scores when attending such virtual events – but not when I am chairing of course! But broadly the seminar series seems to have met a need. But there are needs it hasn’t addressed, for example the inclusion of a social aspect for informal discussion and the inclusion of young researchers in a meaningful way etc. To address this sort of issue, other formats can be envisaged – for example I can think of the following.
- Specific discussion topics could be set, and potential attendees asked to submit short abstracts of a two minute, two slide talk, from which a balanced group of young and established researchers could be selected for a series of short presentations and a more relaxed discussion. These could be recorded and put on-line for all to see.
- Interviews (by me or others) of a range of wind engineers, talking about their careers, their successes and failures etc., which could again be recorded and put on-line.
- The use of a platform such as Gather Town, which seems to allow for multiple individual conversations within a group structure and could be used for, say, virtual poster sessions (but note I have never used this, although on the face of things it seems potentially useful.)
And there are no doubt other possibilities. The question then arises as to what should happen next. I don’t intend to organise any more such seminars till September at least – amongst other things I wish to watch a number of cricket matches rather than just checking the scores, and to re-acquaint myself with a number of heritage railways in Wales. So, I put the following questions to the wind engineering community.
- Should something similar be organised for next winter as I suspect international travel won’t resume in any real sense until Summer 2022 at best? Note that I am not necessarily implying that should something felt to be necessary, then I would be the one to organise it!
- If so, what should the format be – just one speaker, or more than one speaker, or something completely different?
- Are there any suggestions for topics and speakers?
- Are there any other suggestions for possible related activities, such as I mention above.
There is also a larger question of course about the future of the four year cycle of Wind Engineering conferences and whether such a cycle is still sustainable – see for example the initiative of Glasgow University which is urging academics to reduce overseas travel as part of the greening of its activities. But that is a discussion for others to have within the IAWE committee.
Please make any comments in the comment box attached to this post, or, if you wish, email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks in advance.