Sharing the Recipe for rOpenSci's Unconf Ice Breaker

  Stefanie Butland

November 1, 2018

While many people groan at the thought of participating in a group ice breaker activity, we’ve gotten consistent feedback from people who have been to recent rOpenSci unconferences.

Best ice breaker ever!

We’ve had lots of requests for a detailed description of how we do it. This post shares our recipe, including a script you can adapt, a reflection on its success, examples of how others have used it, and some tips to remember. Let us know in the comments if you’ve used or adapted it!

The Choice

I knew we would have a group of 60 to 70 people at unconf17, most of whom didn’t now each other. My objective was to have everyone introduce themselves to the entire group, and I wanted them to have “real” conversations, since immediately following the ice breaker, people would be self-sorting into groups who would collaborate on projects for two days.

After participating in several different flavors of ice breakers in an exercise led by Aidan Budd with a group of scientific community engagement managers, I chose an exercise called the “Human Barometer”, recommended by Cameron Neylon. The script below explains how it works, and there are examples like this one online.

The Script

Ask participants to stand in a line shoulder-to-shoulder facing you. This isn’t important after the start but helps people figure out the process. (Aside: This happens to be a perfect time to talk about your code of conduct!)

The objective of this icebreaker is to have all of you interacting across all perceived levels of who an rOpenSci unconf participant is. Here’s how it’s going to go down.

I’m going to make a potentially controversial statement and then ask you to stand on the spot on the line that reflects your opinion on the continuum between two extremes. For example, if you strongly agree with a statement, you would walk over and stand on your far right. If you strongly disagree, you would walk over to your far left, and many people will stand somewhere in between.

Once you’ve settled, I’ll give you three minutes to talk with the people around you to share opinions on the statement, giving evidence or an example that supports your opinion. Then, I’ll ask for volunteers to introduce themselves to the entire group and share their opinions and evidence. Your challenge is to see if you can change people’s minds about where they’re standing.

Please be sure to say both your first and last name regardless of how recognizable some people think you are. Also be aware that people may have different preferred pronouns. For example, when you’re talking about me behind my back 😉, please refer to me as she or her. Someone else might prefer to be referred to as they or them, as in “They asked me to hold their laptop while they poured a coffee”. I hope people feel comfortable enough to express that here.

Let’s begin…

Question 1: In the R community there are people who identify as #RDogLadies and #RCatFellas (and #RDogFellas and #RCatLadies). So … if you are a cat lover, move to your right and if you’re a dog person stand over here to your left. People agnostic to these animals, or those who identify as #RChickenLadies, should migrate to the middle.

Prior to the icebreaker I recruited two people who had extreme different opinions to illustrate how the ice breaker would work. rOpenSci’s co-founder Scott Chamberlain is an avowed Rforcats person.

Time a 3-minute chat among people standing near each other.

Would someone volunteer to introduce yourself to the entire group and tell us why you have chosen to stand where you are standing?

Continue with brief introductions and sharing opinions to the entire group for 10 to 12 minutes for each question, depending on how interesting the question and responses are. Each person should respond only once during the exercise.

Does anyone wish to move based on what you’ve heard?

Question 2: When I need to do something I’ve never done before, I a) consult an outside authority e.g. read the documentation or talk to an expert and try to understand the big picture OR b) I try to find a working example and modify it for my purposes

Question 3: I know where I fit as a member of the R community (agree vs disagree)

Near end of the exercise, ask anyone who did not speak up to introduce themselves to the group. This requires a good memory for faces and an environment in which people feel safe to do this.


Really work on the questions - they’re the key to shifting it from being an ok ice breaker to a really provocative and useful workshop starter. Think about the questions that underpin the workshop, what are the issues people are worried about but unsure how to raise? Can you frame a slightly humorous question that makes it ok to talk about? - Cameron Neylon

The “I know where I fit as a member of the R community” question was ideal coming at the end of the ice breaker because people had become comfortable with the flow of discussion and were willing to be a bit more vulnerable and share slightly more personal opinions. Someone noted that there was a much larger proportion of women in the group who indicated “I don’t know where I fit in the R community” than in the other group. One acknowledged expert had themselves standing on the “I don’t know where I fit in the R community” side, and they indicated that this was because they suffered from imposter syndrome. This gave me an opportunity to explain imposter syndrome and subsequently, when we polled the entire group, two thirds said they identified with it!

unconf17 photo(c) Nistara Randhawa

The photo above might look like a “we’re a happy community” picture, but it’s actually the response to “who here feels like they have imposter syndrome”?

This ice breaker was the perfect segue into the project group self-selection and eased the way for plenty of informal conversations throughout the unconf.

Who else has used this recipe?

Some people who participated in this ice breaker at our unconferences have adapted it for their own events.

  • Reka Solymosi uses it with 20 to 30 people at welcome week activities for graduate students in Criminology and Social Statistics at the University of Manchester. She says it helps break the ice between students and helps her get an idea of what features to emphasize in the course. The questions Reka uses are:

    • I have a previous degree in/ have worked in a career related to criminology.
    • I know exactly what I want to gain out of this masters program.
  • Miles McBain used it with 35 people at the R Foundation Summit 2018 with modified questions like:

    • most productive time of the day: owl - fowl?
    • snake case or camel case?
    • Computer Scientist or Data Scientist?
  • Sam Albers used it with 35 people at a British Columbia Government useR day. He tried it in a shorter time slot with similar questions, but without the “fun” intro cats & dogs question. Sam says next time he’d aim for a full hour to ease into the more reflective questions, and he advocates calling on people who are reluctant to introduce themselves, as long as you’ve created a safe environment.

  • Julia Stewart-Lowndes used it with with 46 people at the R-Ladies Santa Barbara Kickoff Event with these questions:

    • Cats or Dogs?
    • How long have you lived in Santa Barbara?
    • What is your comfort in R?
  • Nick Tierney used it with 45 people at ozunconf17.


  1. Work hard to design questions that relate to your community and event. Start with a frivolous question and then dig deep.
  2. Write a script for yourself; it forces you to think through the excercise.
  3. Explain how the exercise works and find two volunteers to demonstrate.
  4. Use a timer to limit the small-group introductions to ~3 minutes and limit the exercise to 45 to 60 minutes.
  5. Encourage people to introduce themselves using first and last names; it helps minimize assumptions about who everyone ought to know.
  6. Visually keep track of who has not yet spoken up and call on them at the end, provided you feel like it won’t cause them undue stress 🙂.

What is your favorite ice breaker? Will you try this one? Tell us about it in the comments.