Facilitation at Astro Hack Week

Astro Hack Week intentionally spreads itself very wide in terms of the participants we admit, and the projects we encourage participants to work on. For example, we have both early undergraduate students all the way to faculty members and senior industry experts, and the differential in computational and data analysis skills can be quite wide (though they don't have to be: Astro Hack Week has seen undergraduates teach senior faculty about things like databases!). In this context, Astro Hack Week operates on the principle that every participant has valuable skills to contribute, and that their unique life experience make them a valued member of our community.

It's also worth nothing that participants come to Astro Hack Week with very different goals: some come primarily to learn, some come to make progress on a specific (PhD) research project, some come to collaborate with specific people, and others want to learn more about how to run a hackathon. The breadth of indv

Perhaps the key challenge for us as organizers and facilitators is helping each participant find and contribute to a project that they are both interested in and that matches up with their goals for learning and participation. In addition, not all participants feel equally comfortable participating, and impostor phenomenon is a common occurrence at Astro Hack Week. The goal of facilitation at Astro Hack Week is to provide an environment where all participants feel welcome, accepted and their contributions are valued. With this in mind, each year there is at least one person whose primary task is facilitation. This includes setting the tone of the meeting and framing the community building in the larger context of the goals of the workshop, leading the group through activities such as ice breakers and hack pitches, and going around the room during project time to make sure the teams are functioning well and all participants are able to participate to the level that they wish to. Usually, the person facilitating does not work on a hack themselves (though in 2019, the facilitation was shared between three organizers to allow hack time for each person).

The first day is particularly important in the context of facilitating the event. It sets the tone for the rest of the week, and many participants will meet each other for the first time ever. This can be particularly intimidating to junior participants, and so making sure that everyone has the chance to meet others is a core goal. In addition, the design and pitching of projects, as well as the team formation happens on the first afternoon. This, too, requires careful facilitation to ensure the teams are off to a welcoming, healthy and productive start.

As organizers, it is very difficult to know what's in the participants' minds, and the participants' lived experience might lead them to react to certain activities very differently than we as organizers expect. We have a number of feedback mechanisms that we have implemented to receive feedback both during the week (which may allow us to make changes immediately) and at the end of the workshop (for implementation during a future event). In addition, it is worth noting that all group activities are framed as invitations: we do not insist that participants take part in events that require social interaction, which would be actively hostile to our participants and also counter-productive. We rather invite participants to take part based on how well they feel able to do so. One notable exception to the rule is the Code of Conduct: we do require all participants to adhere to the Astro Hack Week Code of Conduct, and ask participants to confirm their willingness to do so upon applying to the workshop.

With the above considerations in mind, we have implemented some activities to guide participants through Astro Hack Week. These are all based on the following ground rules that we as organizers and facilitators strive to follow and implement during the week:

Story Board

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Detailed Descriptions of Activities

Community Building: Impromptu Networking

Introducing and Framing Astro Hack Week

Building Positive Learning Environments Through a Data Visualization Tutorial

During Astro Hack Week 2018 and 2019, the first tutorial of the week was a data visualization tutorial. Because data visualization is one of the less technically complicated topics, and because it allows for many opportunities to practice group interactions, we chose it as a vehicle to also model and practice inclusive group work with our participants. We guided our participants through a series of group activities that allowed them to self-discover important data visualization principles and put them into practice, while also providing them with structures to help them with the project work later.

Community Building: 1-2-4 All for Data Visualization

Community Building: Improve a Data Visualization

Facilitating the Hacking

The project work component of Astro Hack Week requires careful facilitation in particular, because it is otherwise very free-form and can be very intimidating to new participants and those who are introverted and/or shy. In particular pitching potential projects to the entire group requires a lot of self-confidence in one's ideas and ability to convey them in less than a minute.

We start this part of the workshop with a short introduction into what a hack is, and the characteristics of a good hack (see also intro slides linked above). We alert participants before the workshop as well, and encourage them to start submitting hack ideas to a shared document (though not many do). I think in the future, it would be worthwhile to have a hack development workshop before actually going into the activities described below, but we haven't tried that out yet. The goal here would be to get those with hack ideas to fill out a hack template that asks relevant questions about the project, to be answered before the project can commence.

Hack Pitch Preparation: Impromptu Networking

Hack Pitches

Hack Sorting

Throughout the Hacking

One key component of facilitating the hacking is for a designated facilitator to spend the project time looking out for needs that the groups might have. This involves checking in with the different hack teams regularly and ask questions. How are things going? Is the group missing any expertise? Observe the group interactions and find out whether there are participants who are being (unintentionally or not) excluded from group discussions and work. If so, gently steer the group leaderships towards including these participants, or, if necessary, have a discussion with them in private. Also watch out for participants who might be on their own. Ask them how their week is going, whether they need help connecting to a project. Back off if they indicate that they have some work they wish to do on their own.

We generally repeat hack pitches every day after lunch. Some hacks finish early, others fail early (we encourage participants to try out new things, and fail quickly), and so new hacks might emerge during the week that are being pitched. These pitch sessions are also an opportunity for teams to ask for help, if they are missing specific expertise to make progress on their project.



Feedback is an important component of the hack week. We don't know if something is going wrong if we don't have a mechanism for people to tell us so! It is helpful to stress at the beginning of the week that feedback is always welcome, and that the organizers are always open to receiving feedback.

In addition, we have two mechanisms to allow participants to provide feedback:

Feedback Box

Feedback Survey