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Decision Making in Action: 2020 UBC Physics Olympics

A few thoughts on a current situation and how our reaction to the health crisis can help find the solution…

As we are witnessing an unprecedented spread of the Coronavirus around the world, it is very easy to get into a panic state. The situation is exacerbated by the social media and the avalanche of posts. Many of us feel overwhelmed by the information and it is often hard to understand what information we can rely on. However, while it is very easy to point a finger at others and “scream” about what THEY were supposed to be doing, we have to remember that WE ARE TEACHERS, PARENTS, CHILDREN and often WE have to make these unpopular, but wise decisions.

My colleagues and I faced such a decision last week. We are a team of faculty and staff who collaborate on organizing a very popular science outreach event at UBC. For the last 42 years, UBC has been running UBC Physics Olympics. This is a very popular event that draws almost a thousand teachers and students all across British Columbia to us to compete in hands-on team physics competitions. It takes us months to prepare for the event and we have more than 80 volunteers who make this event possible.

Last week, three days before the event, we decided to hold an emergency meeting that ended up with the decision to cancel it. I have to tell you that this was a tough and somewhat unpopular  decision to make. Here, I would like to tell you how we made this decision. I think it might help many of you to make your own tough decisions in the future, whatever they might be.

When entering the meeting that Wednesday (3 days before the event), I realized that most people in the room wanted us to continue with the Olympics, as UBC and the BC Health Authorities didn’t give the directive to cancel it and we spent months on the preparation. Moreover, we had a record attendance (almost 80 teams from all over BC), which would mean that about 1,000 people would be there.

By some lucky coincidence, a few months earlier, in December, when visiting Israel, my sister invited my husband and me to a talk at Ruppin Academic Center by Prof. Yossi Yassour¬† and Dan Ariely on making decisions. It was an amazing event and after it, I emailed Yossi a brief thank you note and he provided me with additional resources. I also read his book (in Hebrew) that included his lectures – a fun read. It was an outstanding presentation and it made a huge impression on me, as it gave me a simple strategy for making tough decisions relevant to MY life (see the YouTube below). I also saw a professor who is an inspirational teacher and who enjoys what he is doing. It was a wonderful gift my sister, Dr. Svetlana Chachashvili-Bolotin, who is a faculty member at Ruppin and Yossi’s colleague gave us. We also got Yossi’s books as a gift during the event! I think Ruppin organized a very successful event (I have to say that while Dan Ariely was there as well, I personally was more impressed by Yossi’s presentation).

So that Wednesday, March 4, 2020 was my opportunity to test Yossi’s strategy. During the meeting, I asked my colleagues, how would they have felt, if UBC decided to cancel the event (so if this was a passive, not an active decision for them). My husband and I looked at each other and smiled, as we knew that this was “Yossi Yassour talking”. The answer by our colleagues was a resounding sigh of relief. Even if only one child or only one adult in our event were to be sick, we could have helped spread the virus all across BC. And we had no way to prevent the spread from happening or to make sure that nobody was infected. Everybody felt worried about the spread of the virus, but they were afraid to cancel it, as to “increase the panic” and disappoint the teachers and the students. So this question that I learned from Yossi Yassour swayed our discussion. The idea of passive and active decision making was very relevant to us. If we would have felt relieved if the University decided to cancel the event, WE should have made that decision and cancel it. This is what we decided to do and it was the right decision. I was amazed at how people in our Organizing Committee changed their mind by just responding to this simple question – how would you have felt if that decision was made by others and not by you?

When the passion for holding the event was confronted with this question, we realized that a few Corona cases in Vancouver might not look like a threat, yet we are scientists and we can think and reason. We know that the issue is not how many cases we have right now, but how fast one potential case can spread around the province and affect the vulnerable among us. So this was the reason for our decision and Yossi’s strategy helped us make it. In the following days, when the number of cases in Vancouver and in BC has doubled and kept growing, we knew for sure that we made the right decision. Most importantly, we received lots of emails from the teachers supporting us. We realize they and their students spent lots of time preparing for the event and they have been looking forward to it. Yet, they supported us in making this decision. I wanted to thank all the teachers and students who were able to put the good of the people in BC above their own wish to participate in the event.

I also want to thank my sister for inviting us to Yossi Yassour’s presentation and to Yossi for helping us make the right decision. Thank you to all of you. We will see all the teachers and students at the 42nd UBC Physics Olympics in 2021! And now, let’s ask ourselves, what can WE do to contain the spread of the virus and let us make wise decisions.

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