Virtual Tufts Energy Conference brings increased diversity in speakers, participants

The Tufts Energy Conference posted this promotional poster on their Instagram to announce a panel facilitated discussion on March 13th, 2021. Courtesy Tufts Energy Conference

The Tufts Institute of the Environment hosted the 16th Tufts Energy Conference: Tipping Points in the Global Energy Landscape last month. The conference took place from March 11–13, and unlike the conferences of previous years, this one was virtual

The conference, which was centered on the theme of tipping points, had panels on a variety of topics ranging from renewable energy alternatives to environmental policy in the European Union and China.

Conference Co-Chair Elizabeth Dykstra-McCarthy, a second-year master’s student at The Fletcher School, expanded on this year’s theme.

“[It is] the year of a health crisis, a climate crisis and a racial justice movement,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “All three of these are things that we wanted to bring into the conference.” 

The conference covered a wide breadth of topics from a variety of different perspectives.

“We wanted to have a balance and make sure that we [had] representatives … [from] the policy world, the civil society advocacy world and engineers on almost every panel,” Dykstra-McCarthy said.

Although the conference was a success, transitioning to a virtual format was a challenge. When the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, it was unclear if Tufts would be able to host an in-person event in the spring of 2021, or if the conference would be able to happen at all. Over the summer, the Tufts Energy Conference organizers eventually made the decision to start planning for a virtual conference.

“As one of the only energy environmental conferences in the university, we should be focusing on reducing our climate impact, which would mean less travel anyway,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “It made moral sense as much as it did logistical.”

After making the decision to host a virtual conference, Conference Co-Chair Nicole Batrouny, a PhD student in the School of Engineering, began building a website that would optimize the experience of the conference and allow as much interaction between participants as possible. It was important that the website be interactive because the Tufts Energy Conference involved not only panels and lecture-style talks, but also the Hitachi Energy Showcase, which was meant to give participants the opportunity to network with attending organizations.

“We got to build an entire website [and] we were able to have the virtual trade show on there,” Batrouny said. “[We gave] each organization a booth, which is basically a page where they can upload videos or files … and then we had all of our sessions organized in our calendar.”

According to sophomore Kate Guttilla, who worked as Tufts Energy Conference’s lead sponsorship coordinator, one of the challenges in planning the conference was securing funding of over $13,000 to create this optimal virtual environment with Pathable, the website platform. 

“[The platform] was so interactive, and it was bringing together hundreds of people,” Guttilla said. “It cost a lot of money and we had to secure sponsorship from a lot of different companies besides the Tufts Institute of the Environment.”

Other challenges, which came closer to the conference, involved simply making sure that the participants and speakers knew how to use the platform. 

“It was kind of a race to make sure that all of the panelists and the attendees … registered for the platform [and] had access to WiFi and a computer during the conference,” Guttilla said. “All of these things were really critical because if something happened then there wouldn’t be a speaker at the conference.”

Thankfully, the organizers’ careful planning paid off, and the conference ran without any major problems. The conference co-chairs also agreed that the virtual nature of the conference had some significant advantages. Batrouny noted that because the conference was online, the co-chairs and staff were able to attend more of the panels.

“[In previous years] we were running around like chickens behind the scenes trying to get stuff sorted out, so we couldn’t be sitting in rooms listening,” Batrouny said. “[This year] I was able to [do] behind-the-scenes stuff on my computer and [listen] to the talks, which was really cool.”

According to Dykstra-McCarthy, the online nature of the conference also increased conference participation.

“We had 300 registrants, which is definitely more than we’ve had in previous years, which I think is by virtue of it being virtual,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “[We had] 12 hours of content, which is also probably double what we’ve had previously, and nine panels.”

However, although the number of participants was higher, the conference did not have the same energy as it would have if everyone had been in the same room. Also, as many students know, watching content on a computer for hours can be exhausting.

“The likelihood is a lot of [participants] logged on for one session … some people might have logged on for many, but it’ll be hard to tell, and they might not have been super engaged … because you’re just constantly listening to stuff and it feels a bit passive,” Dykstra-McCarthy said.

Still, due to its online nature, the conference had a broader audience than in previous years because participants could join via their laptops rather than having to travel to Tufts for a three-day conference. Conference Co-Chair Nikolas Westfield, a Master’s student at the Fletcher School, said he was glad the conference could reach so many people.

“I’m most proud of … how many people we were able to connect [with] both alumni and current students, with faculty with family, people that aren’t necessarily at Tufts, like they usually would be for the conference,” Westfield said.

This year, the conference also involved more international panelists who would probably not have been able to attend an in-person event.

“I’m much happier with the way our diversity and gender balance went,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “We … had indigenous representatives from Latin America, from Lake Turkana in Kenya, all sorts of … places that we just wouldn’t have been able to get people from [in previous years], so I think it was a distinct advantage.” 

Another addition to the virtual conference was the development of asynchronous content in the form of blogs and podcasts that added to the information discussed during the conference. Dykstra-McCarthy was particularly proud of the asynchronous content because it moved the conference beyond discussion to focus on action steps.   

“[In previous years], there’s never [been] any sort of long-term movement forward,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “That’s something we were trying to change for this year, so we’re producing reports and blogs and things that are going to continue coming out over the next three months. I think that’s a really important structural change from how we’ve done this before, that is, looking more towards concrete steps rather than just sort of talking, which is also nice, but doesn’t necessarily get things done.”

The virtual conference was successful enough that the co-chairs are considering a hybrid structure for it in future years.

“It would be nice to be able to merge the traditional Tufts Energy Conference as it’s existed for the last 15 years, with this 16th extraordinary, different year, and potentially have this hybrid option,” Westfield said. “Going back to having things in person [and] engaging truly with the students that are on campus is important, but to be able to also have that virtual aspect of being able to broadcast online, I think would be a really great thing in the future.”

Dykstra-McCarthy hopes the conference will continue to incorporate the asynchronous content in the future as well.

“I think it gives opportunities for students to do exciting, cool things like make podcasts [and] write open letters to companies,” Dykstra-McCarthy said. “I also think it’s a really important part of making sure that all these conversations … are looking towards some sort of concrete policy development in some way.”