NASA Astrobiology Institute Hosts Science "Workshop Without Walls"

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) hosted a "Workshop Without Walls" using advanced collaborative technologies on March 11-12, 2010. The workshop, on "The Organic Continuum from the Interstellar Medium to the Early Earth," was organized by George Cody and Doug Whittet, PIs of the NAI's Carnegie Institution of Washington and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute teams, respectively.

The experience was truly global, with over 170 registrants from 21 US States and 16 other countries, including Canada, Mexico, six western European nations, Ukraine, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. A total of 33 scientific talks were presented over two days, with fully interactive Q&A among the participants at eight sites equipped with HD-video/audio, and streaming with real-time question submission through the Adobe Connect web interface.

Said co-organizer Whittet, "The advances in technology that made this meeting possible have been paralleled by remarkable developments in the research that drives the science." Added co-organizer Cody, "The cost benefit in terms of scientific knowledge gained and dollars expended by participants is likely unprecedented."

According to Cody, the conference was "an experiment." Most participants categorized their experience level with remote collaborative technologies as beginner or intermediate, and a few had no prior experience at all. Despite this, participants reported the experiment to be a great success. Said one, "I was not expecting to have the same intellectual experience as I normally do at conferences...but after this conference, I do have that same sense of having been to a "real" conference," adding, "this was very fulfilling for me professionally."

Locations of participants ranged from a conference room in a major city with high speed connectivity and professional videoconferencing equipment, to a home office in a small town with a laptop and home-based internet connection. "Over the course of the conference," said Cody, "I actually came to be unaware of the conference as being at multiple venues." He added, "...the difference that high definition, high band-width videoconferencing makes is remarkable. Clear face-to-face contact with no time lag in either visual or audio was the essential part. Evidently the difference between 100 feet and 3000 miles is not all that great."

NAI is preparing guidelines for those in the community who are interested in hosting such an event in the future. Information will be available shortly, but interested parties can contact Marco Boldt at NAI Central at any time, marco.boldt@nasa.gov

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