How to organize an equitable pre-CUMC conference for students

Every summer, Canadian undergraduate students in mathematics meet at the Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference (CUMC). Hundreds of students attend, and it gives them a chance to meet other people excited by mathematics. Students are also encouraged to give a short presentation on a math topic that interests them.

I attended the 2007 CUMC at Simon Fraser university and the 2008 CUMC at the University of Toronto (where I would go on to complete my PhD and then eventually work at).

In the summer of 2018, while I was a Post Doc at the University of Calgary, we hosted a “mini pre-CUMC conference” for undergrads to give their presentations ahead of time. It was so successful that I ran an expanded version of this at the University of Toronto for CUMC 2019.

I think these events and workshops are important for all students, but in particular it helps break down barriers to entry for marginalized students. With that in mind, I’m sharing my resources, thoughts and experiences about our pre-CUMC conference with the hope that other universities and colleges in Canada will benefit.

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Events

We had four main events to support students before the CUMC. All of the events were open to students from all three U of T campuses (and we even had a participant from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa).

1: Workshopping appropriate topics – (two months before CUMC)

About two months before the conference, the Undergraduate Math union at the University of Toronto announced that they would help some students with funding for the CUMC. Since the funding required a proposal of the talk that would be given, I volunteered to help anyone (especially beginners) who had questions or wanted advice.

If anyone is looking for feedback or advice about their presentation, please feel free to email me m.pawliuk@utoronto.ca . Especially if you've never done this before, or maybe you feel intimidated by presenting, or don't know what to expect. This conference is perfect for first-timers. I'm currently faculty at UTM, I presented at the CUMC in 2008 and 2009, and I've helped send many undergrads to the CUMC.
Actually, I attended the 2007 and 2008 conferences. Oops!

Four students took me up on the offer.

It’s important to make sure that support and funding is accessible to those who need it, and that we remove any obstacles to participation. Students have many anxieties about presenting math outside their comfort zone, and those of us with experience can help by answering questions and setting people up for success.

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2: Panel + Workshop with past participants – (two weeks before CUMC)

Despite being a trained improvisor, and a reasonably outgoing person, I’ve always had challenges networking at conferences. We held a one-hour panel followed by a one-hour workshop to help students with networking and the challenges of attending a conference.

Here is the list of activities together with the learning objectives for each hour.

The panel was made up of undergrads with previous experience at math conferences. The math union helped recruit four panelists from the University of Toronto, and I got testimonials from two former students from the University of Calgary. One of the testimonials was a written document, and one was a 3 minute video.

The format of the panel worked quite nicely. We used Mentimeter to gather anonymous questions from the audience (through their devices).

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In total we had 13 questions (some not shown).

Each panelist chose one of the questions to answer, then in order each other panelist could give their take on it. We went through two full rounds of this (so we got to discuss 8 questions). This allowed the panelists to speak on topics they felt they had the most expertise in, and allowed all of the panelists equal time. After the two rounds we did a final “lightning round” for any outstanding questions the audience had that didn’t get answered.

Cross-cohort bonds are important for students new to math. It demystifies the experience, and makes the “rules” explicit rather than implicit. Senior students develop their mentorship and leadership. Plus, it was fun and social, and people made new friends. Universities can be isolating places!

The workshop had lots of social interaction and discussion built into it. In particular we allowed students to practice introducing themselves to (math) strangers in a way that imitated what a real conference would be like. This gave them a low(er) stakes way to practice their social interactions. The sharing afterwards was especially valuable.

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3: Practice talks – (one week before CUMC)

The math union organized time and space for students to give practice talks ahead of our mock conference. In the words of the organizer:

“[These are] raw practice talks, we’re doing it in small groups and you’ll get a chance to run through your talk several times and get feedback. [At the mock conference], you get a chance to present a “good copy” of your talk to a more open audience in a mock conference setting.”

These had six or so participants, and gave students a low stakes way to experiment with their presentations.

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4: Mock conference – (Friday before CUMC)

The culmination of these events was the mock conference held the Friday before the CUMC. We had 8 presentations and needed two rooms.

Here are the feedback forms I made for the event, and the TeX source files. Both of these are open access; please use them! Each audience member filled out an anonymous feedback form for each presenter. The feedback forms are structured to help the presenter find the strongest parts of their presentation. There’s also blank section at the bottom in which we encouraged each presenter to ask the audience for targeted feedback. For example, one presenter asked about the technical intensity of their talk.

It’s important to give presenters agency in their own feedback. Presenting in front of peers makes you vulnerable to criticism. Giving the presenter choices allows them to determine for themselves how vulnerable they would like to be.

Takeaways and Future Goals

Overall, I was very happy with how the events went, and students seemed to share in this impression. They were well attended, and the mock conference even drew in some faculty and other members of the math department.

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I will definitely run this event in future years. Some goals for next time:

  1. Start earlier next year! This is my biggest goal. I want to make sure that anyone who wants to participate can, and that means getting details firmer up sooner than I did this year.
  2. Increase participation from the satellite campuses (Scarborough and UTM). We had faculty and students from UTM participate, but that was a bit easier because that’s my home faculty. This can be set up by me getting to know the department at Scarborough better in the coming year.
  3. Connect with other universities across Canada. I would love to run workshops in conjunction with other universities in Canada. This would align with the goals of the workshop because it would require participants to introduce themselves to math strangers. Writing this post, and making the feedback forms available and open access is a step towards achieving this goal.

If you’re interested in running one of these workshops or mock-conferences and would like to connect with us, please let me know.

What’s your one simple trick for networking at conferences? What does your university do to help students prepare for conferences? What could I be doing to improve equity and accessibility to these events?

Special thanks to Alex Karapetyan (and the math union), Parker Glynn-Adey, Lyra Qian, Jordyn Dyck, and Kristine Bauer for your help in making these events happen.

All photos used with permission from Pixabay.

 

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