“The Aspen environment seems to elicit the kind of ambitious, longer–term thinking that can be squelched by the numerous small obligations that we all face, daily.”

Participant/Organizer Comments

We'd like to share some comments that we believe will help you when planning your workshop sessions:

"ACP should continue to insist on these two things (a) blackboard talks which generate a much more effective speaker-audience communication and (b) the three-week timeframe which is necessary for not only initiating a collaboration but also for making it really get going!"

"I appreciate the Center's dedication to blackboard talks. Having to write on the blackboard forces the speaker to slow down and to reduce information, i.e. plots, to the essence. This allows the audience to follow the speaker's ideas and to come up with suggestions or critical remarks during the talk. The talks during our workshop were always very interactive and I had the impression that this interactive atmosphere encourages people to discuss ideas rather than only presenting results that are ready for publication. I think that this discussion of ideas is very important in a time where every researcher is measured by the number of publications and where there is a lot of competition between groups. I appreciate the open discussion of unsolved problems in the field. "

One–on–one–discussions were the most valuable, because it's during these conversations that one really gets to the dirty details and issues, and that one can develop new ideas and find new problems to work on.”

“The approach we adopted was to limit talks to 3 slides. We found that this left lots of room for vigorous group discussion. Though we could not have predicted it, this proved vital for teasing out each scientist's knowledge and assumptions so that we left the symposium with a common understanding of what the data was and was not able to say, and where modeling stood.”

“The patio sessions, in particular, were extremely lively and managed to address the outstanding science questions while provoking much discussion about what could be the most productive new avenues of research.”

“The number of lectures/seminars was reduced, and yet very focused. All seminar sessions covered a specific aspect and seemed to be organized in such a way as to provide different perspectives over that aspect. This was true for both the experimental and the theoretical seminar sessions. This model allowed one to focus on a particular problem, as opposed to traditional seminar sessions where one is forced to wander through different experiments and different problems.”

“ I am thankful to the organizers for introducing the Bell Sessions (no bell) concentrated in the first week of the workshop where each of us could outline his or her work and interests.” or "People mainly do not interact during the first week, starting in a deep way in the second. A possible way to speed up the integration among participants (if one wishes to do so) could be to promote a more structured presentation by each one.It could be useful to invite people to prepare, say, three minutes before the meeting, briefly describing their research and their interest in the meeting.Or ask people previous to the meeting, to write a micro-profile that could be put on the workshop web site."

“We organized 'team talks' engaging a group of three or four people and focusing on a particular subject. These not only provided the audience with deeper background and introduced them to the outstanding unsolved problems in the subject, but also brought together the team members, some having never met before. The audience was highly knowledgeable, so it was our expectation team talks would be interactive and lively. We were very satisfied with how well the team talks concept worked out, and would recommend this to future organizers.”

“We think we found a superb format that is extremely well adapted to the Aspen workshops: open–ended debates on specific subtopics. A speaker would briefly introduce the topic, list several key new results in that area, and then open the door to discussion. These discussions were ideally suited to the environment at the Aspen Center for Physics, with its relaxed, informal atmosphere and selected group of experts in the appropriate fields. These discussions were extremely productive in that they opened recent work to careful examination, and exposed and explored the open problems. We expect that these debates will stimulate and focus new research on these areas.”

“We didn't have any formal talks. Instead, we had facilitated discussions twice a week, led by two or three people from different research groups (and, where they existed, opposing camps) who spoke for about ten minutes each to introduce the topic, but who then just moderated. This format worked out very, very well, and got the great majority of attendees involved in the discussion.”

“Advice for future organizers: avoid formal talks if at all possible. It's a small field, and we all know what the other people do, at least in a general sense. Save the formal meeting time for discussions. On the other hand, if there is a specific product you want to get out in the end, make sure you know who is going to have to do what in order to make that happen, and organize that well in advance.”

"You might consider at the end of each week of the workshop having the organizers (or whoever wishes) give a review of the field or the week's talks." Or another way to sum up would be "after each meeting, or after the end of the workshop, collect the electronic files of individual presentations (on the workshop's website, which would be) accessible to the participants, to keep memory and trace of the discussion."

Remember that you are a facilitator and team leader, which means you need to be sure that all participants feel connected to the workshop.

Things to Avoid

One difficulty was an usually high turnover of participants. Many of the people I most wanted to talk with ended up staying for just one week or, in one case, one of the organizers didn't come at all. The fact that some key scientists stayed for just a week greatly reduced the chances for in-depth discussions and for exploring collaborations.

Another difficulty was the range of topics covered was too broad and unfocused, which diluted the impact of the workshop...I felt that the talks did not have enough in common and so they did not help the attendees to identify and to discuss some key achievements and issues.

Still another difficulty was that the workshop had too many organizers, many of whom stayed for only one or two weeks, and so there was a lack of continuity from week to week as one organizer would comeand take over as others left. The third week was especially unfocused since none of the official organizers was present and the people who took over were too junior and inexperienced to give the workshop some needed direction.

Because some workshops are three to five weeks long, some participants arrive one to three weeks after the workshop has started. Be sure to include and catch late-comers up–to–date so they feel part of the group and can become contributing members.