When 10,000 teachers and over 1,500 different learning sessions collide, how can I, the conference-goer, possibly make decent decisions given such a preposterous number of choices?
For starters, let’s break down the numbers. If you plan to stay for all four days and observe five sessions per day, you can attend a maximum of 20 and maybe a few exhibitions during lunch. That’s 20 of 1,500 or just 1.33 percent of all the official events. To me this feels like walking into an ice cream shop with 133 choices and being forced to narrow your final choice down to just one scoop. There’s always that moment of panic when it’s your turn to choose your flavor where the scooper looks at you with that “it’s time to make a decision!” face as the line grows out the door.
That’s where I am now, facing a deadline, trying to write about an event with too many choices.
What you need, then, is a method for approaching the conference. Some idea about how you would like to manage it. With ice cream, you would probably rule out a number of things right away. You’re not in the mood for chocolate or nuts. It’s hot outside so something fruity and in season sounds great. And just like that you’re down to a few choices.
That’s the approach I like to take for big, unwieldy, choose-your-own-adventure conferences like NSTA. For the National Science Teacher Association conference, I started with questions that have been strongly influenced by my experience.
To give you a sense of why I’ve selected the events I have, I’ll share a bit about my background. I run a private science tutoring company in New York City where I work with middle school, high school and college students in Chemistry, Biology and Physics. I have a unique opportunity to experience education. I get to see the assignments, the tests, the policies, the projects and the structures of classrooms. I get to see which teachers facilitate an interest in science and which beat it out of their students via mindless tedium and rote memorization. Lastly, because I work at multiple education levels, I have an unusually broad spectrum with which to judge the landscape.
In addition, before running my own science teaching company, I worked in two different research labs. In college, I synthesized organic molecules for a year and then went on to do biomedical research for almost three.
These two experiences have shaped my view of science education and I now believe that it ought to be taught similarly to the way that it is done. The classroom should mimic a lab experiment. Both students and teachers should be encouraged to test their ideas because, at its core, a classroom is a laboratory.
Students should be encouraged to hypothesize, test and analyze in a structured way where the teacher and the other students are invited to critique or provide recommendations for a better study. Even seemingly trivial things like seating arrangement is a great place to start testing.
My conference agenda, then, will be a nice mix of the arts, student projects and classroom projects which highlight the scientific method and its application in everyday settings. My goal will be to see how teachers are experimenting in their classrooms in much the same way scientists are experimenting in their labs.
A number of questions that come to mind are:
- What teaching incentives have turned students into practicing scientists and engineers?
- Are there any radically different ideas of classrooms being tested?
- How are students driving science decisions?
- What are teachers learning from students?
- How are art and science being taught together?
With these questions and my background in mind, I assembled a non-exhaustive list of 10 great session possibilities:
1) Model a Chemical Reaction with Common LEGO® Bricks!, Saturday, 2-3 p.m.— LEGOs are a hot topic now and as a kid I absolutely loved them. As a chemistry teacher I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to show how chemical reactions work.
2) Global Conversations in Science Education, Thursday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. — I like the global pull of this session. Gathering ideas from science educators all over the world may help broaden perspective on what science education is and can be.
3) High School Breakfast (M-2), Friday, 7:30–9 a.m. — My draw to this session comes from the speaker who crossed the Pacific in a small boat and now teaches math. I’m equal parts science and extreme sport enthusiast so this session promises to fulfill two loves in one go. My guess is that other skydivers, rock climbers, divers and sailors will make their way here too.
4) iRobot tour (T-5), Thursday, noon–4:30 p.m. — Who doesn’t love robots? Given that robots are in a good position to take your job, this session may well be a peek into what the future has in store.
5) Explorations at MIT (LEGO@DNA), by preregistration only, Friday, 1-5 p.m. — This is another session based on LEGO learning. I figured it would be useful to learn how to teach chemical reactions and follow that up with a session about how to teach dna/rna/proteins too.
6) The Dirt on Earth System Science: Exploring Soil with Making sense of Science (SC-1), Thursday, 8-9:30 a.m. — I’ve written a soil science curriculum and I think more students (and teachers!) just need to go outside and squeeze some dirt.
7) Active Chemistry: A Project Based Program Capturing the Essence of NGSS and STEM, with Arthur Eisenkraft,Thursday 9:30 – 10:30 a.m. — Chemistry in the real world is project based. Chemistry as a student should be too.
8) Science for Artists of All Ages, Thursday, 8-9 a.m. — Part of what made da Vinci such a master was that he was both an artist and a scientist. There’s a lot to be said for people who can sketch ideas with such clarity. Art and science should be closer — so a few art sessions are in order.
9) Effective STEM Education: Project Envisioning with Young Makers. Friday, 8-9 a.m. — What would happen if we viewed students as talented makers? As humans we have a deep evolutionary desire to make things like tools. Tapping into these desires seems like a great way to facilitate science education and make this session particlarly interesting.
10) Project-Based Learning: A Gathering of Science Educators and IT’S ABOUT TIME®, Friday 2-3 p.m. — I’d like to hear about some successes and failures of project-based learning. In science we learn as much from failures as successes. The same should be true of our mini-classroom experiments in learning.
Don’t forget that most of what happens at conferences has nothing to do with the formal sessions (especially not the blockbusters) and everything to do with what happens between them, at happy hour, at dinner and at break-time. Go to sessions but also leave yourself some break time where you have the opportunity to strike up a great conversation!
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