ISEC 2020 started off rough – we initially planned to host this year’s camp in the Czech Republic. However, as we all know, the world was disrupted by the global Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of the planned camp. This was not an easy decision to make, but proved to be necessary. Almost immediately, we began discussing the possibility of an online alternative. There were so many logistics to take care of! Could we pull it off?
Creating an online summer camp was both a daunting and exciting task for this year’s ISEC board. We built a completely different approach to hosting collaborative research projects, building and maintaining a community online, and developing mentorship communication. In between long conversations about the dates of Online ISEC, the length of the camp, the social activities, and the application process, among others, we embarked on a fast-paced journey to increase the number of ISEC mentors, both in order to be able to support more ISEC participants and to be able to offer projects spanning a wider range of scientific topics. After a rigorous mentor application process, we were happy to welcome the best of the best onto our team – Andrés, Elif, Erinç, Fernando, Hayley, Miriam, Paula, and Yurğa. In a few short weeks, we almost quadrupled the number of ISEC mentors to include 11 mentors from Slovakia, Spain, Turkey and the United States. Coordination and weekly meetings amongst the mentors allowed for project collaboration and co-mentoring, but it also allowed the virtual structure of Online ISEC to be well-tested across time zones and cultures. Not only were we able to bond over this planning, but we also developed a game plan to build a community with our many participants. One of the best parts about moving to an online platform was the opportunity to expand the breadth and inclusion of camp participants to many more students than we would have been able to support in the Czech Republic.
The number and the quality of applications that we received blew us away. This year, we had participants from 28 different countries. Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America were all represented during Online ISEC, meaning that time zone calculations were an everyday occurrence! We were able to reach students who would normally not have the opportunity to join us due to high travelling expenses or camp costs. We truly cultivated global representation, stepping closer to our goal of creating a worldwide scientific community.
We hosted Online ISEC in three sessions (A, B, & C), each lasting two weeks. Participants were grouped into projects with one or two other participants and one or two mentors based on their shared interests. Projects covered topics in quantum physics, pure mathematics, epidemiology, programming, astronomy & planetary sciences, chemistry, biology, genetics, environmental science, biogeochemistry, philosophy of science, and science fiction writing. Groups met at least once a day for mentors to explain concepts, offer guidance, and establish an ongoing relationship with their participants. Outside of these meetings, participants were tasked with collaborative work on reading, writing, coding, and project formulation. This inspired cultural exchange and encouraged foundational friendships to complement and aid the collaborative process.
One of the most important parts of Online ISEC was the daily Games & Fun session. For the folks from Los Angeles and the Western US states, Games & Fun meant waking up at the crack of dawn to log into Zoom, while folks from Southeast Asia were getting ready to head to bed. This was an opportunity for all the participants and mentors to interact with and get to know one another. We played Pictionary, managed to organize virtual hide-and-seek, struggled to describe unusual drawings, and shared literature and musical performances. We got to know about each other’s cultures through short videos created by the participants and mentors from each country.
Certain moments were especially memorable and helped shape the ISEC experience. During the presentation event, we learned about Catherine’s hot sauce making skills, Ana’s card memorization abilities, and Lenka’s computer game creating ingenuity. We also had the opportunity to listen to İdil and her twin sister sing an upbeat Turkish song, while a well-placed painting of a plant behind Oz’s head made him appear as a pineapple during his captivating musical performance. Hector the chef demonstrated his culinary prowess throughout ISEC by cooking Slovak pirohy and Turkish menemen as part of the recipe game. Though we weren’t able to try any of his treats, the photos made our mouths water. The story game brought out everyone’s creative side as our characters dreamt of mythical creatures and trekked across to African dessert on their way to Switzerland. The longest activity was an online escape room game that tested a group’s ability to not only only solve various puzzles, but also to collaborate effectively in order to find a hidden treasure.
This is not to say that hosting a global online science camp didn’t have its complications and frustrations. Having participants from all over the world in a virtual camp meant bad connections, tricky time zone coordination, online shyness, and unexpected, multi-day, regional blackouts. However, even these difficulties couldn’t stop ISEC participants and mentors from laughing, having fun, learning science, and creating memories. One participant’s favorite Games & Fun activity was another one’s least favorite one, just as some activities that the participants in one session found a bit boring were a huge hit in another session. The one thing that we all learned, mentors and participants alike, is that an online camp is way more exhausting than it sounds!
We are tremendously proud of the work Online ISEC 2020 participants displayed. It is not easy to participate in a virtual multi-cultural community with many other unknown students. Regardless of the difficulties and awkwardness we all worked through together, the camp was a resounding success. Several groups continued to work with their mentors past the initial camp dates, and one will even become coauthors on an astrochemistry publication! We believe this work is a testament to future scientific collaborations, where building authentic relationships despite distance will be prioritized in order to fulfill the pursuit of knowledge.