Planning the annual retreat

The annual School of Computing PhD Retreat took place earlier this week, and I am exhausted from all of the fun (and the planning!).

Traditionally, the retreat is planned and organised by a member of staff, but due to other commitments, the task was passed off to me and my co-student representative, Andreas Steyven. However, the short notice meant that we didn’t really have time to be planning a three-day retreat, so we decided to get a little creative (with the blessing of the Director of Research and another “responsible member of staff”).

With limited time both in our busy schedules before the retreat was to take place, Andreas and I decided to make the trip a bit relaxed and fun. We also knew that the rest of the students were pushed for time, so we decided to make it easy for them, too, by not giving participants anything to prepare in advance. Instead, we asked students to just show up ready to share their research in an informal environment.

We did, however, ask a couple of members of staff to run a couple of casual sessions. But as we had a “no technology” theme going, no one needed to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Instead, they were asked to share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience in a casual manner. We had staff-led discussions about preparing for the viva and the thesis process, administrative processes within the university, and a discussion about how best to utilise the PhD study spaces and collaborative research room.

We also ran two sessions that were designed to get students talking about their research in a casual manner. The idea was to help people build communication skills so that they could explain their research without preparation—and to a general audience.

On the first evening, Andreas ran a session called “Parrot Party”. For this session, we paired off with someone from outside of our research group. The first person then had three minutes to explain their research to a “listener”. After the three minutes were up, the listener had to explain the first person’s research to a member of staff. The idea being that listening is an important part of communication! (It was harder than it sounds!)

I ran the session on the second evening which was the main presentation opportunity for the retreat. It began shortly before dinner when I produced a box of random items: batteries, yarn, old phones, a tin of beans, a stuffed bear called Randolph, and an odd selection of other things I had laying around my home. The idea was that after dinner, everyone would have five minutes to present their research using at least one item from the box as a prop. Everyone had 15 minutes to look through the box before I closed the lid again. Then, after dinner the presentations began.

Randolph was the star of the show, and was used by nearly all of the presenters as a way of sharing their research. But people used several other props and mostly seemed to enjoy the challenge. Importantly, I think everyone learned new ways of thinking about how best to communicate their research. (A hard task, when you’re not given much time to prepare!)

Overall, I think it was a great retreat. I know it took some students outside of their comfort zone (presenting without PowerPoint!!) but I think it was a good experience for all of us!

Next week is another busy week as I prepare for the School of Computing PhD Research Conference, for which I am a co-chair. I suppose that means I should start thinking about my presentation. After all, I plan to win first place and I can’t do that without a bit of preparation!


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