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SkeptiCamp

Planning Time1 month
Group Size10+
Staff #4 - 5 (plus
non-members)
Event DateAnytime



Activity Overview: Once upon a time, a group of engineers and tech geeks realized that going to 'official' conventions and conferences was expensive, inconvenient, and offered minimal user participation. Thus began Barcamps, user-generated conferences which were organized and implemented by the people who attended them. Any person with an interesting topic and yen to discuss it with others about it could create and present their own version of a TED Talk.

The concept has been duplicated for freethinking folk in the SkeptiCamp. Instead of discussing technology, SkeptiCamps focus on critical thinking, science & pseudoscience, religion, and other topics of interest to skeptics. Hosting one is a great way to connect with likeminded people in your area, especially those from off-campus, and those who may be reticent to join a freethought organization.

Planning timeframe: The first Barcamp was put together in a week, but don't count on things coming together as quickly. That said, this is supposed to be a loose, informal event compared to official conventions and lectures. A good lead time is to start planning about a month in advance.

Coordinating: Organizing a SkeptiCamp is supposed to be open-source and participatory. If things are working correctly, those in charge shouldn't be doing too much - their job is to set things up, and wind them correctly so the event runs like clockwork. Additionally, the people who do sign up to lead should select their duties on ad hoc basis, building on the skills and materials they can contribute. They should include students and non-students, long-time skeptic activists and relative newcomers. Though this can seem unwieldy, in many ways it is a strength of the format.

Material requirements: The venue is critical to ensuring a good event. It needs to accommodate all the participants, but in a way that allows for interaction (huge auditoriums or theaters won't work!). It should also have a projector and wi-fi (on many campuses this is password-protected - see how that works). As university students, you have a great advantage in being able to reserve space on campus at little or no cost.

The next most critical element is a webpage, which will promote the event, enable coordination, and help you obtain the other things you need. Skepticamp allows you to upload your event, and puts it in a template that aids in planning.

Optional but helpful materials include food and t-shirts. These will likely require sponsors, contributors who donate time and money for an ad on your t-shirts.

Cooperating Organizations: You want to aggressively market this to as many like-minded groups and organizations as you can. For this reason, it is heavily recommended that you look to skeptic, atheist, and scientific circles in the community and at other schools. When you think about what topics will be of interest, keep in mind that you can bring wildly heterodox speakers: a cleric to discuss religion in the light of science; a detective to discuss forensic science; a teacher on God in the classroom; a magician on the techniques of her craft, etc.

Note: Most of the following was synthesized from a few sources. Nine Steps to Organizing Your First SkeptiCamp was particularly valuable. Another guide, although intended for Barcamps, is also helpful here. Finally, this slideshow highlights some critical elements for any event.

Suggested Walkthrough

  1. The first thing to do is to propose a SkeptiCamp. Wherever local skeptics gather, in person or online, put the idea to them. You'll quickly get an idea of who wants to come and who can chip in. One person, ideally one who is detail-oriented and a good delegator, should become the lead person.
  2. Settle on a time and place, at least a month in advance. As mentioned, students have a leg up on securing space. A suitable time should take into account academic calendars, holidays, and other skeptic events, such as conferences. Once you announce a time, stick with it: it is much easier to change venue rather than date!
    1. While some SkeptiCamps are multiday, multi-room events, short and focused ones can be easier and more enjoyable. A concentrated event, where all talks are well-attended, will be much better than one where attendance and interaction is sparse.
  3. When booking a venue, try to reserve a long swath of time - if you can't fill the whole thing, don't worry. You're much worse off if you have a lot of interest and no place to hold it!
    1. Depending on your expected attendance and building layout, one possibility is to have a common room & breakout rooms. This will allow multiple events to go on simultaneously. However, you should vary the length of sessions throughout the day (begin with medium-length ones, move on to lightning rounds, and finish with a longer keynote address).
    2. If you have a mutli-room format, you'll need to make sure someone is in the common room at all times to direct latecomers and the curious.
  4. Your event page needs to display, to all potential participants, a list of attendees, organizers, sponsors/donations, and available speaking slots. It should prominently display a contact address so those who want to sign up can do so. Check this address and update frequently!
    1. Allocating speaking slots can be done on a first-come, first-serve basis, with the exception of specific ones (introductions & keynotes) that ought to be reserved for certain subjects or special guests. Make sure each slot indicates the amount of time available. Encourage experienced and developing skeptics to present! You can negotiate a comfortable and compelling mix, but avoid micromanaging.
    2. Organizers should sign up for specific jobs - getting a venue, serving lunch, running wi-fi and technical issues, etc.If tasks haven't been taken, it's up to the lead person to delegate them - these assignments should be specific and limited.
    3. A specific section should allow people and groups to make donations of needed materials. The more specific and discrete, the better - nobody knows how to donate 'Lunch', but surely someone can chip in '30 bottles of soda'.
    4. Promote, promote, promote! Do this as soon as details are in order, and up until the event itself. Approach promotion from several different angles, and look to reach different people. Aim to reach people on the campus, local, and state levels. Techniques can include:
      1. Posting on skeptic forums.
      2. Going to local meetings and talking with members there.
      3. Send a notice to bloggers, both to announce it and to liveblog.
      4. If there's a prominent freethinker in your community, see if they'd be interested in attending or speaking.
      5. Use social networking sites - Facebook, Meetup, Eventful, Upcoming
    5. Although attendance will hopefully be free, you'll want to get an idea of the number of participants beforehand. Wufoo.com allows you to set up a registration form online, as well as create a survery to send to participants afterward.
    6. Depending on the cost of the event, you may need to find sponsors. These individuals or groups will contribute money or materials to the event, generally with the expectation that they will get some promotion out of the event. Sponsors help keep your event free, or as low-cost as possible. Once your details are in place and you have a rough idea of how much money you need, start looking for sponsors.
      1. One of the generally accepted ways to do this is to create a Skepticamp t-shirt, which has the event's logo on front and the sponsors' name and logo on the back.
      2. Look for sponsors and vendors in your local area - new groups especially want to get their name out. National groups may be able to contribute shirts, buttons, or other swag, and at the very least can give you literature to display (as does SSA). The Skeptic Society and the James Randi Educational Fund have been known to support SkeptiCamps.
  5. Speakers are the lifeblood of your event - they carry the show, as it were. Keeping your event spontaneous, interesting, and unpredictable means recruiting a variety of speakers, and in particular supporting new speakers. Give them prompts for interesting talks, and emphasize that they need not be complex lectures - a structured discussion will be very well received! Be sure to check in with speakers in the weeks leading up to the event - make sure that they have a defined focus, have practiced public speaking, and will show up.
  6. The day of your event, make sure that everything is set up, and that the schedule is on display. This means keeping discussions to their allotted time, moving tangential debates outside. Encourage civil and polite conversation in talks. Try as hard as possible to break down barriers between speakers and listeners - make this a truly interactive experience!
    1. Set up a table at the event to promote your group with information and signups. Encourage other groups to bring their information and literature as well.
    2. Try and locate a printer or copier nearby. Some people will need to make printed materials, or will need to make more of them.
  7. You want to be able to collect content from discussions for later dissemination. This can be done several ways. People should be encouraged to liveblog their impressions as it goes on. Prominently display twitter hashtags and flickr tags for people to use! If possible, videotape or record audio of discussions to be put on your event page later.
  8. Afterwards, thank everyone for participating. Thank material contributors in writing.
    1. Meet with other organizers for a post-mortem discussion; critically assess how things went. You can now make preparations for your next event!
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