Rebecca Murphey

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Show & tell at the Times Open Science Fair

This post is really old! I've kept it around because it may still be interesting, but many things may be out of date.

I spoke at the Times Open Source Science Fair a couple of weeks ago. I'll admit that I was pretty skeptical of the concept when I was first asked, but as someone who used to work as an editor at a tiny newspaper in upstate New York, I wasn't about to say no when the Times asked me to come say hi.

A few days before the event, I got an email asking me for information about what I'd be showing off at my booth. Booth? Wat? They weren't kidding about the science fair thing, but what the heck was I going to show at a booth?

It turns out this is basically the best idea ever. I recruited my Bocoup colleague Rick Waldron to join me, and together we spent a whirlwind hour showing off robots powered by JavaScript to an endless stream of people walking up to our booth. Rick did a great job of setting up a demo that people could play with, and they took turns moving sliding potentiometers that controlled servos that moved an arm with a gripper at the end, trying to pick up Bocoup stickers. Ours was one of about a dozen booths showing off open-source projects, and the room was a wonderful madhouse.

After a break for dinner, I, Jeremy Ashkenas, and Zach Holman each gave 20-minute talks, but the talks were really just icing on the evening. The "science fair" format promoted such intentional interaction, in a way that traditional conferences just can't, no matter how great the hall track or the parties may be. The format invited and encouraged attendees to talk to the presenters -- indeed, if they didn't talk to the presenters, there wasn't much else for them to do. By the time the official talks came around, a super-casual, super-conversational atmosphere had already been established, and the energy that created was tangibly different from any event I've been to before.

I love conferences, and the sharing of knowledge that happens there, and there's a whole lot to be said for their speaker-audience format -- don't get me wrong. But I'd also love to see more events figure out how to integrate this show and tell format. "Booths" don't need to mean "vendors trying to sell things" -- they can actually be a great opportunity to facilitate conversation, and to let open source contributors show off their hard work.

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