Every year, Beth Croll, CMP, director of conferences and events for EDUCAUSE, is tasked with finding a meaningful service project for the annual conference. This year, it was the conference’s keynote speaker — Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the nonprofit, Girls Who Code — who provided the inspiration. “[Saujani’s] message for girls is to think differently — it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being brave,” said Croll. “That really struck home for me.”
Because EDUCAUSE’s annual conference is designed to help IT professionals in higher-education institutions work together with their peers to find solutions to the challenges they face in their roles, an initiative involving Girls Who Code was a natural fit. Computing jobs are among the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. economy, according to Girls Who Code, but fewer than one in five computer science graduates are women. Through after-school clubs and immersion programs, Girls Who Code aims to even the playing field by offering learning opportunities to girls at every stage of their education. To date, the program has seen more than 185,000 participants declare or intend to declare a major or minor in computer science.
To show their support to Girls Who Code alumni who were in the midst of taking their midterms and finals, Croll and her team set up a station at Chicago’s McCormick Place West during the conference, Oct. 14–17, where people could, with a few strokes of a pen on a postcard, send words of encouragement. “It has to be relevant to our audience, and it has to make sense,” Croll said about choosing the project. “It has to be something they can have passion behind.”
Working with Girls Who Code’s alumni director, “we created a postcard that was focused on our branding as well as encouraging the partnership,” said James Berg, communications manager for EDUCAUSE. They set up a structure near the general session room that provided postcards and pens, as well as promoted the initiative via EDUCAUSE’s social-media channels.
While a final count was not available at the time of this writing, Croll and her team estimated that attendees had filled out around 500 postcards, which Girls Who Code distributed to alumni. At one point during the conference, Croll walked a vendor through the space and pointed out the postcard station. “He got very excited and said, ‘Oh, I absolutely need to fill out a postcard.’ It was something close to home for him,” Croll said. “He has a daughter who is in a STEM program right now.”
Collaborating with Girls Who Code anchored the conference’s overall message on inclusivity, but Croll and her team knew there was more work to be done in making each of EDUCAUSE’s 8,800 total participants feel included, too. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion is something very important to our board and senior leadership. So for our planning team, it was a concerted effort to not just make everyone feel welcome, but to also take away any barriers that would prevent people from attending in the first place.”
A few years ago, Croll noticed that more and more attendees were asking for something that could help them hear the speakers better. “We do provide sign language interpreters when needed, but [some attendees] are in an in-between world,” Croll said. “A lot of our audience is focused on the teaching/learning environment, so we wanted to showcase something that would help all learners.” Enter Wordly.
Croll used the new cloud-based translation application at all of this year’s annual conference breakout sessions to great success. By connecting the speaker’s microphone to a mobile device running Wordly’s presenter app, the cloud-based software automatically translates their words into 15 languages (and more languages are planned, according to the company). Attendees just need a mobile device to access the website, where they can listen to the real-time translation or read a transcript in whatever language they prefer.
Besides appealing to attendees whose first language may not be English, the application also appeals to those who are hearing impaired, as they can choose to read the original transcript instead of a translation. And having a transcript can assist attendees who just prefer a more visual style of learning. “People make the assumption that everyone can hear [normally], and it’s not true,” said Croll. “And I’m one of these — I’m a visual learner. I don’t hear words as often as I should, so when I read it, I retain it better.”
Relax and Renew
Croll and her team were also thoughtful about crafting spaces that spoke to specific attendee personality types. One of their concerns was that they would lose attendees during the afternoon break, when many would head back to their hotel rooms to rest. “It’s iffy,” Croll said, “if they’re going to come back at that point.”
To make them feel comfortable enough to stick around, Croll and her team set up a park-inspired “Relax and Renew” area. It’s something they had done in years past but this time they expanded the footprint to make more space for attendees seeking a bit of alone time. “Our audience is predominantly introverted, we know that.
They’re mostly IT professionals,” Croll said. “We had other spaces designed for working, chatting, and collaborating. This was meant to be, ‘I need to sit by myself for a moment and recharge my (internal) batteries.’”
In addition to providing comfortable seating areas and a Zen garden, the team piped in the sound of birds chirping. A walking path encircled the space, where attendees could get a chair massage or play board games. “We provided a number of options for whatever helps [them] relax,” Berg said. In addition to the background sound of birds and park-like visual cues, the space included multisensory touches like aromatherapy and flavored water stations.
“We’ve started to think more holistically when it comes to attendees; you can provide all the content in the world … but at the end of the day we still need to take care of them as human beings and make it a more personal experience,” Berg said. “The more that they can relax and enjoy the conference, the more they will get out of it.”
Jennifer N. Dienst is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.
› For more information about Wordly, visit wordly.ai
› To learn more about EDUCAUSE Annual Conference 2019, visit events.educause.edu/annual-conference