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Festival of Learning 2021: Connecting the Curious

Dan Novy

“The Festival of Learning is always a great opportunity to remember that we are a community of hobbyists who exist outside our official job titles. This year's FoL provided the spontaneous interaction that I've missed after a year of scheduled Zoom calls. Thank you to the presenters who offered their time and expertise as a means of connection!”

– FoL 2021 Attendee 

We all know the beginning of 2021 at the MIT Media Lab looked and felt completely different than a typical academic year. One thing did stay the same, though: the Festival of Learning! Our challenge was to bring this day of hands-on tinkering and geeking out into a completely online setting without losing the things we love about it—its spirit of playful, spontaneous, and adventurous learning. 

In this post, we’re sharing some highlights from the fifth annual Festival of Learning and how we tried to keep the magic of the event alive when we went virtual! 

A key aspect of the Festival is that we all make and create things together throughout the day. From the moment you walk in and design your personal name tag to the end of the day, when people fold up paper napkins into paper planes during dinner, everyone is always tinkering with something. How could we bring some of that mentality into the home? We decided to send care packages, so that our community would have materials in-hand that would spark inspiration for the day and remind them of being together in the Lab even when they were not. 

Our team sent out over 140 kits that incorporated session-specific materials, and, more broadly, items that helped embody the playful spirit of the event. Materials included a *special edition* FOL21 Festival of Learning hat, custom postcards and stickers, snacks, an air plant, modeling clay, herbal teas, crayons, craft supplies, and a notebook. We tried to send out materials that, combined with what people had at home, would allow them to make and create with other Labbers throughout the day. 

For some of the sessions we even sent out special materials. For example, the Cardboard Automata session used craft materials and the box that they came in to make homemade, dancing machines. And participants in the Paint Like Rothko session received a special painting set—including oil paints, brushes, and a canvas. Those who had signed up for BiochART received charcoal and the tools to transform it into a mini-masterpiece! 

Beyond the tangible elements, we also wanted to capture, or recreate, the serendipitous spirit of FoL; the experience of running into a friend from another research group who you haven’t seen for a while, or meeting someone new and finding out that your research interests connect in surprising ways, or spontaneously hopping into a session that sparks your interest. It’s hard to do that in Zoom, where everything feels intentional, planned, and regimented. So we opted for a very Media Lab solution: creating our own reality, in virtual reality! 

Members of our team brought the third-floor Media Lab atrium to life online so we could meet informally and “hang out.” We used Mozilla Hubs to create not just one replica of our physical space, but four distinct atriums, each with their own themes and features. Participants could walk—or, rather, teleport—between virtual worlds: hitting the dance floor in the Disco Atrium; making some fishy friends in the Underwater Atrium; blasting off in the Outer Space Atrium; and jumping into different FoL sessions from the Hall of Mirrors. In each atrium you could take a selfie, customize the room by using graffiti or adding 3D models of your favorite characters, and, of course, bump into other Lab members! 

As ever, the Festival of Learning couldn’t have happened without all of the amazing community members that volunteered to host sessions. This year’s FoL consisted of 20 different sessions, run by a combination of faculty, staff, students, and UROPs. Sessions included Terraforming for Earthlings, The Periodic Table of You, exploring the development of a Climate Initiative at the Lab, and Improv 101

Crazy But Coola lunchtime pitch session hosted by Professor Pattie Maes, brought together over 90 Labbers to watch 13 presentations on radical ideas for the future of the Lab. What would a Media Lab in outer space look like? How might we stop using screens altogether? What are ways to design living memories of Media Lab faculty members? Talks were organized by degree of outlandishness, in ascending order.

In previous years, the Festival was concluded with a communal feast, prepared by a dedicated team of volunteers who would  cook an entire dinner for 150 people from scratch. This year we tried to recreate the magic of the Feast with a co-cooking session using a sheet-pan recipe that we sent out the week before and led by Festival chef de cuisine Lydia Guterman. Of course it wasn’t the same as sitting on the sixth floor of our building, eating pasta on long communal tables, but it was social and personal in a different way and it was fun to comment on Lydia’s knife skills in the process. 

While we hope that this is our last entirely virtual Festival of Learning, we also realized that with the right approach, and a whole lot of planning, it is possible to transfer some of the things we love about the event to an online setting. 

We encourage any and all to remix or riff off of any of our ideas, for any and all virtual events (or, if you’re feeling adventurous, your very own Festival of Learning!).  We’re always happy to chat with folks interested in learning more about how we put this show together, or to send us more feedback on the Festival—feel free to email the team at festival-of-learning@media.mit.edu

And finally, as always, we would like to wholeheartedly thank the entire Media Lab community for truly showing up.

See you next year! ~ Your FoL Team

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