Virtual Physics Conference

I’m part of a grant team right now brainstorming a new project, and a part of it is potentially hosting a conference. We kicked around some ideas about it, and as usual in situations like this, we casually talked about what a virtual conference might look like. That got my brain going so I thought I’d get some thoughts down here.

My goal: A virtual conference for physics teachers to be held potentially in the summer of 2020.

Whenever I’m a part of conversations like these, the typical pros and cons list look like this:

  • Pros
    • Cheap (I almost stopped this list here)
    • Flexible
    • Comfortable
    • Wider reaching
  • Cons
    • Not as immersive
    • Missing “hallway conversations”
    • Less connections
    • Less commitment from participants

I’ve been thinking about all of those and I think I’ve thought of at least a beginning of a plan that address all of them. Certainly the pros will still be there, but hopefully it’ll be an experiment worth doing if we can address the cons at least to some degree.


I’ve used a ton of different technology for doing meetings like these. Back in the glory days of the Global Physics Department we used both Elluminate Live and later Blackboard Collaborate (really the same software, just bought out by Blackboard). Since then I’ve used WebEx, Google Hangouts, and Zoom a ton and I’ve occasionally used others as well. For this experiment, I would mostly want a reliable technology, and the one that I’ve had the most luck with there is Zoom. But below I’ll lay out what I think the needs would be.

Participants at a minimum would need a computer/phone with decent internet speed and speakers. A microphone would be great and a camera would be too, but I think I’d be open to where we’d draw the “necessary” bar.

Speakers would need audio and video and screen sharing capability. It’s possible we could ramp up to something like dual monitors or something but I’m definitely open to suggestions.

Rough outline

My vision is something like this:

  • Parallel sessions
  • ~5 speakers per session
  • 4 sessions blocks in a day
  • A single day


This is the toughest nut to crack, I think. The longest online conferences I’ve been in were 8 hours long and it was hard to stay focused. So what would it take to get people to stick?

Taking the outline elements from above: Parallel sessions allows people some choice. Certainly at in-person conferences people really appreciate that, especially when a session doesn’t have what you’d thought it was going to have. ~5 speakers per session makes it seem like you could potentially hold all that info in your head at a time and really have a great conversation going. Four session blocks in a day just seems reasonable and one day is a great start for this experiment, at least I think that’s true.

Addressing issues like “my favorite part of conferences are the impromptu conversations that happen between sessions” is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I think it would be great if we had technology that allowed the following:

  • Every session has a Zoom room (I’ll just use zoom vocabulary here to simplify) with a main speaker at any given time but a running commentary that people can participate in.
  • Questions will be submitted and voted on during each talk so that speakers can answer them in a crowd-prioritized way.
  • Discussion will use software like my “my-turn-now” software that allows for equitable discussions.
  • [This one I don’t know about existing solutions] This one is what I’ve been thinking would help the most with some of the cons above. I call it “hallway conversations.” I want any two-or-more groups to be able to spontaneously spawn a new zoom room. They would get video conferencing, a chat board, and a white board. They could welcome anyone else in who “knocks” and they could choose to be either public “Andy and Super-Cool-Person’s room” or private.
  • Drop in rooms for common topics
  • You’d get a personal recap record of every room you were in along with whatever contact info people in that room were willing to share. You’d also get a chat transcript and any whiteboards.

Imagine sitting in your pajamas with a beer and seeing that people you are excited to meet are in a public room. You knock and they let you in! You then can meet them and either hang at the periphery to just listen or jump right in. Kind of sounds like an in-person conference, doesn’t it? The originators could leave and the room would still exist until there’s not at least two people in it. The personal recap record would really help you maintain any contacts you’ve developed.

My other big idea is meals, specifically lunch. I envision partnering with something like Door Dash to get everyone a meal at the same time. They’d pick their meal at registration (possibly even same day, I suppose) and then it would be delivered to everyone at the same time (yes, I know, there’d be some time zone problems but I think it might be cool enough to convince west coast people to eat at 10). There’d be Zoom rooms for every type of food. You’d be in a video conference with anyone else eating “at the same restaurant” and you could hopefully be involved in some fun conversations (and of course you could still launch a “hallway conversation” if you wanted to).


This couldn’t be free, as the Zoom cost won’t be zero. But it would surely be cheaper than gas/plane + hotel that a normal conference would have. If we had 5 parallel sessions and 5 speakers in each session and 4 session blocks that’s 100 people. If we charged $100 per person that would be $10,000 which might be enough for the Zoom ideas above. I plan to research this a lot more.


A collaborator of mine shared this white paper from the University of California system that talks about an approach to virtual conferences that sounds a lot like a flipped conference. Speakers record their talks ahead of time and each talk has a discussion board associated with it. I think that’s a cool idea, but I’ve always been unable to get my cognitive energy focused like that ahead of a meeting. The plan above allows you to come in cold (with the exception of your own talk of course) and just let it flow over you dynamically. I’m curious what others think, though.

Your thoughts?

So that’s where I’m at with my brainstorming. Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • I love this idea, where can I sign up? I just had a couple of thoughts to make it better . . .
  • Um, ever heard of google? This exists and is called . . .
  • If I can’t shake someone’s hand I don’t think it’s a real relationship. How are you going to do that?
  • Love the “hallway conversations” but I think you’d also have to think about . . .
  • $100?! Way too _____. Instead you should . . .
  • I would love to facilitate a session. Can I shoot you some ideas? Who’s on the committee?
  • Could we do a poster session too? I have some ideas about how that could work
  • Door Dash exploits their delivery people. Instead think about partnering with . . .
  • Here’s an interesting way to mix your ideas with the flipped conference ideas . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in community, glodal physics department, teaching, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Virtual Physics Conference

  1. Melissa says:

    Interesting idea! What is your rationale for one whole day versus two half days? I find it hard to focus at a conference for a full day, but focusing on a screen for a full day seems like it would be even harder.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      I was leaning toward one day to help with the immersion part. If it’s half a day people would be more likely to try to do their normal job too. But I’m definitely open to that approach.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    I love that you are thinking about this, but I personally balk at two things:

    1. The cost. $100 is a lot for a face-to-face conference for me, so it seems especially expensive for a virtual conference.
    2. I just am not all that excited about it. I love the idea of a weekly virtual seminar, though. So maybe I am agreeing with Melissa that a whole day is too long? I am not sure.

    I would have expected to love this idea more than I actually do.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      I just pulled that $100 out of thin air. It could end up being much cheaper. I would just want it to break even, of course.

      I look at this as a very different commitment than a weekly virtual seminar. We had some success with that in the good old days of the Global Physics Department, but the ongoing logistics needs wore a bunch of us out. This would be a concerted effort, surely, for the organizers, but a different sort of commitment from the participants.

  3. I like this idea very much. The “hallway conversations” are such a good idea that I hope you can make those happen even more frequently than the conference. Also, one way to defray costs would be to allow companies (like Pivot Interactives) to present commercial workshops. Charge them to do it and use the money to fund the conference. We’re down.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      That’s a great idea! Do you think companies would feel it’s worth it?

      On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 8:15 PM SuperFly Physics wrote:


  4. Gary Oas says:

    Hi Andy, as an online school (Stanford Online High School) we hold several of our all-staff collaborative days online in addition to co-hosting online conferences for a local set of like-minded schools. We use a mix of Zoom and Adobe Connect. Would be happy to share our experiences and/or assist as possible.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      Awesome, so glad to hear about that. Do you do anything like the “hallway conversations” that I describe?

  5. SUSAN BARBER says:

    We don’t have any funding or available sub days to attend any conferences in our district. Not uncommon in Texas. An evening or Saturday would be more likely for me to attend. I go to the NASA webinars for teachers all.thw time and it’s helpful. They’re using Adobe connect.

  6. Nathan Moore says:

    Sounds great. How do I sign up? I’ve been griping about an accreditation conference coming up – I expect they’ll just be reading slides to us for 6 hours. I don’t see why I need to leave my wife alone with the kids for 4 days just to hear some powerpoints. I know how to read etc.

    Personal rant, academic travel expectations are not compatable with being a parent.

    If you want to take the argument further, you could probably argue that flying to conferences is irresponsible from a GHG standpoint.

  7. Pingback: Coronavirus And The Future Of Physics Conferences - News Diary

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