International Wind Engineering seminars 2020/21 – some reflections

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.

UniGe Giovanni Solari
Prof. Giovanni Solari

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 c.j.baker@bham.ac.uk. Thanks in advance.

6 thoughts on “International Wind Engineering seminars 2020/21 – some reflections

  1. Hi Chris. Thanks a lot for the effort you put in organizing all this and managing the round table discussions. It will be difficult to have a significant improvement. Seminars can be organized in the same way next year, should it be impossible to meet around otherwise. As you suggest, some solutions could be implemented to facilitate discussions between participants. One of the missions of the IAWE is also to support the education of new PhD students. In the current situation it is very difficult for them to sit in their sofa and just learn by themselves. It is important that we keep working on this in order to not break the inertia that is driving the wind engineering community.

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  2. Thank you Professor Baker for your organization of a series of very wonderful seminars. People in the field of wind engineering have not only benefited a lot from these seminars, but also been connected via these seminars in this difficult period. I have been very glad to see all of you.

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  3. Thank you Chris for organising this excellent series of seminars. What this time has taught me is, that as good as it is to meet in person, online events have a distinctive contribution to make in enabling technical communities to come together and discuss their work. From my perspective it means that I can dip into topics that have links to my interests when there would be no way to justify (particularly international) travel to the complete event. I think this helps broaden the reach of communities and also enables potential new entrants to test the waters.

    I have found myself attending more seminars this year than I would ordinarily. The ability to attend virtually from my desk made events much easier to fit in with work. I think that particularly helps people working in industry. Your events (and others) have also been a welcome morale boost during a difficult period.

    I hope that we take the best lessons from the tragedy of the pandemic and learn how to do things differently and perhaps better. I think well run online seminar series, like this one, definitely fall into that category.

    Maybe they will also help us think twice about our carbon footprint?

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  4. Hello professor Baker,
    Thank you for taking your valuable time to prepare all these seminars and panels discussions. These seminars have major advantages not only those in Wind Engineering Community around the world but most importantly for students and researchers groups that have not an opportunities to travel for physical conference organized by IAWE for many reasons including cost, times, lack of resources for those in developing countries where research fund are somehow very scarce…. Personally, I greatly appreciated the way all seminars materials including video were shared and will remain permanently, so that future researchers in wind engineering will have access. Finally, these seminars come at the right time to allow researchers to maintain contact during this period of global crisis. Thank again for all those who had made this events, Thank for the sharing!
    Thank again to all, organizers, speakers, presenters, panel members for making these online seminars a success, Thank for the sharing! Thank for the consistency!

    Wind Tunnel Laboratory, Central South University, Changsha/China.

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  5. Thank you for hosting a series of excellent lectures, Professor Baker.. Wind engineers not only benefited immensely from the seminars, but were also associated in this tough time through these seminars. I was really happy to see you all.

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  6. Dear Prof. Baker,
    Thank you so much for organising such a valuable series of excellent seminars.
    You gave a unique opportunity, to everybody interested to wind engineering in the whole world, to listen to the most outstanding specialists in this field giving lectures of the highest quality. Also the format was perfect, in my opinion.
    Personally, I never had an opportunity like this one, before now, to collect so many great presentations altogether and even to have the possibility to see them again and finally to download them.
    Last but not least, the fact that all this effort, of yours and of the speakers, has been offered with no fee to pay for attending, has opened these resources also to the broadest amount of young researchers and students, and this is also highly appreciated.
    I can conclude hoping that all this might be repeated in the future: I will surely be in the list of attending people.
    Many thanks again for this wonderful idea and organisation of yours and many thanks to the speakers for sharing their knowledge.
    Kindest regards

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