SkeptiCamps are popular events to put on and it is not a mystery why. The idea of an unconference raises the question “How hard can THAT be?”. After all, you don’t need security, you should not need money, it’s what...a glorified skeptics in the pub? If only it really were that easy.
If you are thinking about planning your first SkeptiCamp it may or may not be easy depending on what you have in mind. You need to consider the following: number of people, money, location, and technology. The most important thing is to remember that this is your first one so keep your goals reasonable. The larger your first event, the more likely it will “get away” from you. Have others done larger events? Sure. Then again maybe their background is different from yours. The only thing I have organized prior to this were labs for 30 ninth graders and Christmas dinner. For this very reason, SkeptiCamp was set for from 35 people to maybe a 50 max. So, keep your event to a size you know you can handle, which will ensure the greatest likelihood of a successful event.
The biggest challenge I encountered while planning this event was the venue and venue location. It’s the most challenging because of money and something I have never heard of before: proof that your group has insurance to hold such events. In this economy, apparently no one wants to give up space for free. The Bank T. & D. Roy basically funds
Granite State Skeptics. Everything that costs money comes from our pocket. This puts a limit on what we could do. Thankfully, the JREF helped us out when we asked. (This reminds me of another very important thing: ask for help.) It was through the JREF we were able to get an appropriate venue, NHTI. Until I found out after the contracts were signed; the original location NHTI wanted proof of insurance. Granite State Skeptics does not have “event insurance”. Remembering that Science Café was held at the Barley House Tavern, Travis and I decided that would be a good location.
Once the venue was secured, planning the rest was a little easier. Travis helped me out with the technology and set up an EventBrite account. This is a great site to help track ticket “sales” and only charges you if you charge for the event. The SkeptiCamp wiki page is fairly easy to use and update, once you figure out the format. Publicizing your event is important. Make sure you post the event in many places as you can and post repeatedly. I posted on almost all of the New England area skeptic sites. When people signed up, I asked them if they would like to do a talk and on what topic. However, when the speaking slots were filled, I stopped asking. I set up a schedule once the speaking spaces have been filled. Each speaker received fifteen minutes for their talk and five minutes for questions.
There are minor things you must deal with as an organizer; personalities of some speakers, redundant topics, spreadsheet schedule bars blur together, you forgot something you needed at the event, and keeping speakers on time. When these minor issues come up, just put a smile on and say “no problem” cause in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. If you smile and roll with it (within reason of course) no one knows something went amiss and you look like a pro. So, while I look awesome to everyone not involved in running SkeptiCamp, there are a few details to workout for the next time. I would like to sit down for more than one talk. I need to find a larger screen for viewing presentation slides, and have the schedule visible so people know who’s next. I also need to work out a better schedule for the food break.
There are good and bad points with our chosen venue. The couches, comfy easy chairs and some tables made it feel more informal and relaxed. Food and drink were not a concern as it was a restaurant and the room came with its own bar. The bad is the lack of tables seemed to be a problem for certain food orders and the lack of a large projector screen. There was a large screen flat panel, but it was not big enough for the event. Timing for some of the speakers is also a challenge, so I need to come up with a more visible way to show them their time is winding down. As for the mix of speakers, the topics were diverse and so were their backgrounds.
To help make things smoother for next year, I sent out a survey. I sent out about thirty and received thirteen back with some interesting results. Some wanted the event shorter, others longer, but the most popular response was “keep the time the same”. (Our SkeptiCamp was five hours long) Majority of the people would like to see different speakers next year, with only a few requests for the return of one or two speakers. Some comments were rather amusing, such as: “Make it shorter, more speakers, longer and more frequent breaks” and I am not exactly sure what to do with this comment.
There were some concerns about the technology; one person suggested that we get a better remote for the computer and sound system for slides with audio. This request is not realistic as mentioned earlier the majority of the funding comes from our own pocket. In addition, I feel getting fancier equipment may take away from the informal nature of the event, then again maybe not. It is supposed to be open to everyone and able to make due almost anywhere. Overall the feedback was positive and the concerns expressed are similar to mine; if next year is larger then will the same space work?
Now that everything is done I have had a chance to mull things over. The location and venue is the hardest part to nail down. Getting people to speak can be little difficult as not many people feel they have something to contribute or they do not feel like speaking. However, it turns out there is quite a bit someone can contribute to such an event. For the first time speaker, this is the perfect event to give it a go. Most important part, when planning such an event is to work with in your ability. If you are able to pull off large events, good for you! If not, don’t worry. People will have fun anyway. Keep it simple for your first time and ask for help, because no one is going to be impressed if everything goes wrong and it is mismanaged. A big thanks goes out to Travis Roy, everyone that came, that helped, and to the speakers as well. Bigger thanks go to the JREF for cosponsoring our SkeptiCamp! Thanks to your help, I was able to pull this event off and will be able to do another one for next year.
** After the John Edward protest, some members of the Granite State Skeptics have made donations to the group. Travis and I appreciate the help greatly! THANK YOU!**
Dale Roy is the vice president of Granite State Skeptics and a graduate student working on a Masters in Science and the Public. Next semester she will be furthering her efforts to promote critical thinking and science by teaching "The Way of Science" at New England College.