In October, the National Consortium for Data Science (NCDS) in partnership with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business held a Career Panel for students interested in data science and analytics. Originally meant to take place on Duke University’s campus, the NCDS team was forced to adapt their event to a virtual setting for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new format offered benefits such as easier attendance and a wider geographic reach along with the challenge of making sure participants could “meet” the panelists.
After completing the Career Panel over Zoom and with the prospect of future virtual events, the NCDS team conducted a retrospective review and identified the following list of worthwhile tips and lessons for facilitating a successful virtual panel event.
- As Zoom fatigue sets in, it’s important to identify tools for audience engagement. With virtual events, it is easy for participants to get distracted by their environment. The team utilized the online platform PollEverywhere for students to suggest questions for the panelists and for other students to bump up questions that are of interest to them. This tool lets the moderator see which questions are more interesting to the audience than others, creating an environment for participants to be more engaged with the information and the event. “Tools for engagement can go beyond just polls,” said Shannon McKeen, Executive Director of NCDS and this year’s Career Panel facilitator. “There’s potential in the idea of having participants pre-record clips of themselves answering questions for use as teasers to promote the event.”
- Design something for students to do once they sign in to the event. The team asked the attendees a polling question about software tools they were using for their work. PollEverywhere’s platform allows for multiple choice questions, open-ended questions, and upvoting.
- The facilitator of your panel is a de facto panelist — make sure they have the ability to connect with both the audience and the panelists. It is beneficial to have a facilitator who is knowledgeable about the topics but doesn’t distract from the expertise of the panelists. As McKeen said, “The facilitator should be an informed member, but should not dominate the conversation.”
- It is key to have panelists that are good mentors. It shines through in everything they say and how they speak to the audience. It’s especially engaging to have panelists who are able to draw the conversation from the abstract to the concrete. For example, a panelist who manages the data analytics for retail company Advance Auto Parts discussed how she automated her grocery list to draw parallels to the passion and commitment she looks for in potential employees.
- Panel diversity is incredibly important. For the structure of the Career Panel, it was important to have panelists from an array of job fields, degrees, and company size to reflect the diversity of the audience. While it’s beneficial to have panelists who are good communicators, it’s just as valuable to have humorous and charismatic panelists. A panel with different personalities and backgrounds will complement and balance one another.
- Don’t make it too stilted: not every panelist needs to answer every question. Making each panelist answer every question can lead to a repetitive and disengaging atmosphere for the participants. It’s important to manage the flow of questions and allocate answering time accordingly.
- Share information about the event with university career centers and key contacts in university departments that are interested in the topic of your panel. Connecting with relevant parties can help spread the word of your event. “Topics such as data science are important for every career and for development of the workforce, so the more widely you can spread the word about your event, the better.” says McKeen
- Protect the security of your event by requiring registration and emailing the Zoom link less than 24 hours before the event. “Zoom bombing” and other exploitations of technology should be avoided at all costs. While registration allows those behind the event to control access, it also allows for better monitoring of the people and information related to the event.
Transitioning events from in-person to virtual has been a new endeavor for many in recent months. Online events have opened up unique opportunities that enhance the event. In conversation, McKeen pointed out how the virtual setting allows for a broadening of the reach of the event to people outside the local area.
“It’s crucial to deliver a panel that makes attendees feel comfortable enough to carry the conversations they started during it into the following weeks. For example, ending a virtual event with break-out rooms on Zoom for each panelist can serve as a replacement for after-event mingling,” said McKeen. “After seeing the success of this year’s panel, we’re excited about how the lessons can better connect us with data science professionals and students, not just around the country, but around the world.”
The NCDS Career Panel was established in 2016 as an opportunity for students around the Triangle to explore career opportunities in the data science field. Panels feature an array of experts, including start-up entrepreneurs and representatives from larger companies, including Blue Cross Blue Shield NC and the SAS Institute. The event attracts a diverse array of undergraduate and graduate students, professors, and employers, who gather to meet, hear and teach about the practice of data science in the real world. The Career Panel is structured to engage students regardless of their area of interest.
The NCDS’ next career event “From Outsider to Insider” will be held Spring 2021. This is an annual networking event for students interested in careers in analytics and data science. Stay updated on news about future events by following the NCDS Twitter account or signing up for the newsletter.