By the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training in Machine Learning Summer School  

The Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training in Machine Learning (SFI CRT in ML)  Summer School 2021 was another successful event organised by the students of the second cohort who started their PhD studies in September 2020. The Summer School is an annual week-long event that is a core part of the centre’s PhD training programme. The Summer School brings together all staff and students from across the centre to encourage teamwork and scholarly exchange. Some selected activities are also open to PhD students outside the centre, collaborators, industry partners, and the wider public. 

This was the second SFI CRT in ML Summer School, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic all the activities had to be online. Five students from the three universities took on the challenge to design, organise, and deliver the event. The students in the organising committe were asked to be bold, creative and ambitious and to think beyond the standard activities in order to overcome the difficulties and maximise the opportunities of remote connection. The organising committee had thirteen weeks to organise everything including inviting international keynote speakers from different sectors, choosing the online platform and organising poster sessions for more than fifty students, all with the additional challenge of different time zones, as many students are currently located around the world. 

The organising committee are young researchers with very little previous experience in planning events and went by far above and beyond what they were asked. The Summer School was a huge success and attended by almost 300 people. 

We thought that their experience could help other students and, for this reason, we asked the organisers to share what they learned. The following is the testimonial of the 2021 Summer School Organising Committee 2021: Cagri Demir, Charity Delmus, Hamza Riaz, Mehreen Tahir, and Patrick McEnroe.

 Why did you volunteer?

To get to know other members of my ML-Labs cohort. 

To get event management and work experience at international level

I like organizing events, I think it’s one of the jobs I would have taken on if I wasn’t in tech.  

I thought it would be fun.

Volunteering at these kinds of events not only adds to your experience but also tests your management and leadership skills. It’s a challenge planning and executing a week long activity, that too in times of COVID, and who doesn’t love challenges right? 

Did you have any previous experience in organizing an event (small or big) and if so tell us about the event?

One of the favorite ones I have organized was a Cultural Night at my previous school. It took weeks of planning but seeing people coming together, representing the countries where they come from brought me joy.

I have had almost no experience organizing such an event.

I’ve previously managed a few tech related events. Those events were mostly locally held, in-person events and were sponsored by big tech giants like Google or Microsoft.

No experience.

You had 13 weeks to organize the summer school. Let us know if you needed more time or less time and why?

It was enough time as long as speakers were identified and contacted fairly early, as was mostly the case.

13 weeks are enough for organising the event because the members like me who didn’t have similar experience feel relaxed and absorb info step by step. 

I think the time was just right. It enabled us to spread the tasks but more crucially to recruit and work with the different speakers. 

I think that is about the right amount of time. More than that we might have gotten lost somewhere in the process and less than that we might not manage to finish everything and compensate for any last minute changes.

I think we managed just fine. 

Is 5 people the right number for the summer school committee?

The students all agreed that 5 people would suffice. Working as a team the number helps because there are times when not everyone is available for a meeting or to complete a task. More people would complicate the planning because it is difficult to find a time that suits everyone particularly if there are different time zones that makes everything more challenging.

 What challenges did you face ?

Division of work and maybe slight underestimation of work (not how long tasks would take but extra stuff we forgot we would have to do like timetable/poster for panel/writing of emails/documents to explain how to create a jamboard or get to a social event).

Off campus events make it hard to find a more interesting social event, international speaker time slots according to Irish time.  

 Coordinating with various speakers was not easy, but since we started early, it helped a lot. 

  1. Unresponsiveness of the prospective speakers 2. Unresponsiveness of the participants (like people who are going to participate in the poster session) 3. Sometimes you might get lost about the programme and schedule. At that point you need some guidance or a hand to push you in the right direction. In that sense, reporting regularly to the Centre executive committee meetings and the support from the centre Manager and the advice from Prof Alan Smeaton   who joined some of our meeting helped a lot 

I think the most challenging part was to make it engaging and fun since it is very easy to get bored sitting in front of a screen. 

How much time each week you spent on organizing the summer school ?

The common answer was between 10%-20% depending on the week.

 What would you do differently ?

Maybe initially everyone should look into everything but try to divide tasks earlier than we did – I think we tried to divide tasks other than the getting of speakers (and after posters were sent out to everyone) with around a month to go. Social event of murder mystery I think required too much thinking at end of last day of long week for many people so maybe a more mindless activity if it takes place at end of last day. For a specific event maybe don’t assign it to one person and rather give it to 2/3 people (with one person or 2 people taking the lead). 

Face to face social event if possible, add more activities in gather town 

I can’t think of any right now.

If it was a physical summer school I can do alot of things differently. But given the number of participants and how tiring the online meetings are I can’t think of doing something “very” different than we did. 

I think the contribution on my part was a little less. Could have contributed more. 

Would you recommend other students to do a similar activity if they had the opportunity and why?

Yes – they can get to know people, it is good to learn how event organizing works and they can improve their communication and leadership skills.

Yes absolutely, I would recommend students to participate in such activities because these activities and events make the PhD journey more diverse, interesting, and less boring. Secondly, to the best of my knowledge, these activities would give an edge for future activities like after PhD in professional life.

100% Yes. It is very fulfilling as it is a way of giving back to the lab but also you get to see your own ideas implemented. How awesome is that?

I strongly recommend this because this kind of opportunity is far more educational than any other group/team works, workshops etc. you try to fill the gaps throughout the process and feel like “being a real team”. Any activity to simulate “group work” seems artificial compared to this process.

A definite recommendation. You get to know people in a much different and better way. Moreover, it helps us connect with the people from the industry and connections are important.