What is the purpose of a summer school?
Some of the hallmarks of Marie Curie projects are mobility and networking between its partners. In normal times, this translates into periodic training events hosted in different countries, secondments and summer schools. It is the last item on the list that is the topic of this blog post. However, before telling you about a summer school that I have recently attended, I would like to introduce a general concept of summer school, and explain why I had to write “in normal times” in the first lines of this article.
The idea of the summer school, as far as we are concerned, is to deepen knowledge and skills in specific research areas by cramming high-end lectures from experts in a specific field into a week-long event. That is the first objective of a summer school. The second, and not less important, is networking, and it derives almost logically from the fact that a summer school attracts students with extremely similar interests and looking for minds to interact with. So, during a summer school you are expected to deepen your knowledge but at the same time to lay the foundations for future collaborations.
Well, let’s now turn to the “in normal times” clause. At the moment of writing this article, the world is trying to recover from the health crisis that Covid-19 has created. While there are some scattered signs of improvement, there is still a long way to go to reach what once we called normality. Summer schools have had to adapt in order to survive during this period and have therefore converted their format to virtual. In-person lectures have been replaced by online presentations and stunning gathering halls with virtual chat rooms. This, unfortunately, greatly reduced the social component that fertilised what I have defined as the secondary objective of the summer school – networking.
Having said that, today I want to tell you about a summer school that I recently attended (virtually) – the Summer School of Information Engineering (SSIE), and persuade you that summer schools are still worth it.
The SSIE Summer School
The SSIE summer school is an Information Enginnering Summer School which is “in normal times” held in Brixen. A city in northern Italy, almost sharing a border with Austria, which boasts ancient history, beautiful architecture, delicious food and breathtaking mountain scenery. The first edition was held in 1991 and you can still check out the programs starting from 2000, when researchers had hard times dealing with ad-hoc networks and analogue electronics in integrated circuits. Since then the SSIE has not missed a year and its program has evolved in order to keep up with time. This year, the summer school had two tracks: “machine learning theory and applications” and “next-generation electronics and photonics: from quantum devices to the internet of thing”. You can find the program here.
I personally followed the first track and particularly enjoyed the lectures about learning in non-stationary environments, reservoir recurrent neural networks and distributed machine learning on networks: design of accelerated learning schemes.
The event was packed and organised flawlessly, the lectures very topical and with interesting insights for research. You can find the recordings on the SSIE Youtube channel.
Overall, the first objective of a summer school was successfully achieved. As for the second, clearly, the virtual nature of the event reduced its social reach. Nevertheless, the event boasted a workshop during which it was given the opportunity to participants to present their work and to interact with others through a Q&A session. I am sure this opened up the opportunity to find many potential research partners for participants!
Is a virtual summer school worth it?
Now we come to the point. Does it still make sense to attend a virtual summer school or is it just Zoom exhaustion? My answer is a definite yes, you should attend them! In fact, every cloud has a silver lining, and thanks to the virtual organisation of events, many summer schools have become financially accessible and they offer the possibility of getting the content on-demand, thus giving the possibility to return to the focal points of the lectures whenever you like. I also think that the fact of summers schools being recorded pushed lecturers to produce high-end and polished presentations that you can easily access online.