AAAS Annual Meeting Finds the Right Balance Among Disciplines

Author: Michelle Russell       


Students are a key part of the AAAS Annual Meeting — and all attendees are encouraged to have fun with badge ribbons.

This case study is part of Convene‘s April CMP Series story looking at innovations in scientific and medical meetings.

American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting
Feb.13–16, 2020Seattle, Washington9,000-plus attendees

Along with its program to make student participation more affordable and engaging, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) continues to make its education format more interactive — for those attendees who seek that out.

“Because we’re not a primary disciplinary conference, our focus is more about being able to talk to a multidisciplinary audience and introducing them to innovative work across disciplines,” said Nicole Maylett, CMP, AAAS director, office of meetings and special events. “We’ve also been doing a lot in terms of making the meeting more of a celebration of science as well.”

To make the AAAS Annual Meeting more inclusive for students, the association offers them a discounted rate in exchange for the opportunity to volunteer. “If they volunteer for eight hours — being in the session rooms, counting, keeping an eye on things, and letting us to know anything that happens,” Maylett said, “their registration would be refunded afterward.”

The level of participation in that program depends on where the Annual Meeting is being held, Maylett said. “For example, if we’re in Boston, where there’s just a quilt work of universities, we generally get a lot of students in that program,” she said.

Also open to registered attendees enrolled in an undergrad, grad, or doctoral degree program is a Student E-Poster competition. Students send their e-posters according to specific categories, which are presented on site as a single page with static text and images shown on an 80-inch LCD monitor in e-poster pods, as well as on smaller touch screens closer to the scientific symposia rooms.

The students have about five minutes to talk about their work to a panel of judges who’ve seen their poster ahead of time, and then they answer some quick questions. There are about six pods going on Saturday and Sunday morning and the judges come up with the winners and honorable mentions. The winners are recognized in AAAS’ Science Magazine. “We appreciate student involvement,” Maylett said, “and hope that their experiences at our meeting lead to lasting relationships with AAAS.”


A student shares her research with attendees at the AAAS Annual Meeting. Undergrad and grad students have opportunities to show their work.

Format Tweaks

To make the Annual Meeting experience more interactive, “we’ve been playing around with formats,” Maylett said. “We’ve turned our career workshop from being a panel discussion into a more dynamic format, with mics in the audience and people walking around. Our symposia we’re about to play with next,” she said, but “we need to be careful on one hand because of the spirit of those sessions. But at the same time, there needs to be more interaction between the audience and the panelists who are sharing their data, their work, and the new things they’ve been finding.”

One consideration when making these format tweaks is that the AAAS Annual Meeting “is filled with introverts,” Maylett said. “In appreciation of introverts’ preferences,” she said, a science film screening room on site enables them to watch a film in quiet to informally discuss afterward. There are also work areas on site where they can take a break from the event and focus on their laptops. Both settings give them a way to recharge their batteries and “refocus,” she said. At the same time, she said, there are ice-breaker opportunities, including Game of Phones cards set up at some cocktail tables in those work areas so they can start conversations at their leisure. “We hope that these activities will help attendees to transcend disciplinary silos and create a stronger com- munity around the meeting.”

On a different front, a new initiative this year was a dedicated “safe space.” At previous events, there have been some attendees who may have experienced harassment yet did not “necessarily feel comfortable enough” to go through the association’s official reporting process, Maylett said. “So, we had a safe space with advocates there so people could talk about the situation,” she said, without any fear of retribution. While it wasn’t much used, it is something she thinks AAAS will continue to offer.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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