Career and Technical Education Education Educational Leadership Professional Development STEM

Sorry for Making Trouble at Your STEM Conference

The education conference is a thing. We’ve all attended them, learned things, felt connected at times, got excited, got bored, decided to skip out a bit early, maybe even met some other good teachers here and there. But wether attending and/or presenting, inevitably most of us have ended up back at school or work fairly untethered from the experience with little lasting evidence or modification to practice hoped for by those that organize these affairs. My last conference was the CA STEM Symposium a month ago, and after all these years, I got to experience a few things all together new and unexpected.

For the last decade, I’ve primarily been a presenter, but this time I was able to finally step back and take it in from the sidelines as just an observer. I wasn’t responsible for a presentation, nor was I responsible to learn something new for a current project or to bring back some research-based strategy or exciting new curriculum to my team. I merely went to support a program I had helped shape and grow over 7 years ago in my home state, and to listen in on how my former colleagues and their new teacher teams were using the tools and resources we had envisioned and designed. As is the format, the project was afforded a concurrent session as one of many offerings, so I volunteered to at least stand at the door and handout introductory materials to those coming in for the show. The room had a stated capacity of 100, and I had 150 handouts. As more and more attendees came down to our far end of one of the many hallways, the room slowly filled up, and I realized I was starting to run low on handouts. People started sitting on the floor, crowding around tables, and carrying chairs from the adjoining presentation rooms.


Yet, with 5 minutes remaining until start time, people were still streaming our direction and along with them I spotted a bonafide fire marshall charting a course through the crowd targeting the large line that was now forming at our session’s doors. As my handouts were now gone, I knew the room was clearly in breach of the official limits. I attempted to run some interference by saying, “Hi there; it looks like offering teachers free dry erase markers turns out to be a hit huh?” No smile. So I assured him I was now turning people away, and that I would be happy to go see if a larger room was open that we could move to in the next 15 minutes. He listened, said he understood, and then did his job by posting a sign in front of our door. He turned to me and said, “If one more person is allowed in, this presentation will be disbanded.” He politely thanked me for my understanding and walked back down the hall.


I quickly went down the hall as presentations were just starting. Quickly glancing into spaces up and down our two adjacent corridors, I couldn’t immediately find an empty room. But I did find plenty of almost empty rooms. Typically one or two people at the front, moving through slides and presenting on anything from Coding for Girls to Robotics for Middle School to STEM Integration with NGSS. Some rooms had 5 participants, some 10-15…none more than about 25 though. Lots of empty chairs. Lots of fairly quiet, reserved, small audiences in large, cavernous spaces. As I rounded the hallway corner returning to my team’s session, I immediately saw that 10 or so teachers, undaunted by the marshall’s sign, were standing on tiptoes just outside the room peering in as best they could. The sound of energy, excitement, engagement, and sharing was creeping out into the hallway. Flashing my “Presenter” card, I begged and squeezed my way back in and was struck by what I saw. I guess for so many years, I had just been part of the party and hadn’t really reflected on the difference between our sessions and others’. I decided to just snap some shots with my phone as evidence of what was occurring here as opposed to the session in progress next door…I bet you can guess which is which.

crowded house


I had overhead the CA State Superintendent of Public Instruction that day promoting the concept of this conference by sharing that their goal was to:

“Bring together the experts, and the teachers in the field and in our classrooms. Let’s have them work and share their best practices, their best lesson plans, how they excite students in their classrooms…then clone the ideas and get it out there and have our teachers here go back motivated and excited to their classrooms to get students motivated and excited.” (Conf. Video)

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With the exception of a few presentations I’ve attended over the last 15 years, it’s been my observation that gathering for 2-3 days in a central location for a few keynotes and a series of 1-2 hour sessions is not the ideal vehicle for “Sharing Best Practices” in a way that allows for the “cloning of ideas”. Those managing conferences would need to re-structure the nature of what is presented, how it is shown to more directly support teachers’ needs, and the means by which it is packaged for in-depth operational understanding and delivery to an audience of learners. But as was the case, a conference organizer who had received some complaints from participants unhappy they could not get into our session, came to find me and discuss if I felt our session went well despite the over-crowding. I shared with her that, “Again this year, as was the case last year, we maxed out the room and had to turn about 30-40 people away.” “That’s too bad.” she said, “because we had one of our larger rooms for 250 people open and available in the other corridor.” She must have read the pained expression I was trying to conceal when she offered, “But it sounds like a good problem to have though.” I guess it was a good problem to have if your concern was solely your session’s popularity with attendees.

The problem however, good or bad, wasn’t mine. The problem belonged to this and other conferences that want to be a venue to promote and share best practices. The problem was in determining the relative value of certain presentations as aligned to attendees’ interests and needs. The problem was in how to ensure presenters could provided or structure their concepts, ideas, resources in ways that optimize dissemination and acquisition for attendees. But most importantly, the problem is solvable. Clearly, some teams and projects have devised ways to functionally “Share Best Practices” while most others merely provide a perfunctory slide show of “resulting data”, “lessons learned” or “Big Aha’s” that has little actual impact or potential for extended implementation. For a start, conference planners who collect evaluation data on session attendance, session ratings, and the like, might begin by analyzing and using that data. For those sessions that have had similar “capacity problems” or are deemed high-quality through other metrics ….someone should contact those teams to know more about what they’re doing and how. For our part, I think there are 3 pronounced elements that draw teachers in and keep them continuously on the watch for our sessions at various conferences.

  1. Provide Substance: What is being shared is bonafide, high-quality, teacher-developed, classroom-sourced, student-tested lessons, activities, and projects. Where there is instructional discourse and analysis of a given PD approach, it always comes with an observable model or product. Any teacher examining any of these materials can readily recognize it as evidence of another teacher’s instructional thinking, challenges, learning, and implementation. As such, it is simple to discuss in terms of its applicability in the classroom and in aiding others to consider the strategies and outcomes it entails. They are NOT general frameworks with some guiding instructional questions or a series of low-cognition assessments based on a specific standard. They are not administrative outlines or arbitrary pacing guides or any number of items so often passed off as “curriculum” or “instructional strategies”. We err on the side of what would be deemed of real value to help educators examine existing practice and consider opportunities for enriching their own strategies, approaches, and content.
  2. Provide Access: Everything is published online and provided up front so people aren’t clamoring to grab handouts before their gone, or feel as if what they are being allowed to access is a mere teaser sample. Within the first 5-10 minutes of the presentation: Here’s the website, here’s every project, lesson, and related material…you can copy it, modify it, use it, whatever you want, its yours. There are no catches or exceptions. If you get the site address, and enough to know how to go retrieve it later and want to leave to another session,you can. We are satisfied that we are connecting people to an online community of practitioners and their resources, and for many, they can elect to engage in that space and time. We typically have 100 or so attendees to our session, but have averaged 600-800 new accounts in the hours and days immediately following our sessions.  (So why do some tend to stay then for the full presentation?)
  3. Provide Collegial CollaborationWe do not subscribe to the notion of our own expertise. Access to us is not what makes the process valid. We see ourselves as equal practitioners and colleagues to the people attending our session and participating in our programs. As such, budget is set aside to bring a diverse selection of actual teams of teachers from our projects to the conferences we attend now. As they are the creators and implementers of our processes in their own classrooms, their voices and experiences and products are a more valid interpretation of our work. We simply introduce the project’s primary concepts and then identify these teams by name, school, their respective teaching assignments or disciplines, and the focus of their projects. From their we invite attendees to move about the room to connect with our project leads, or with any one of our teams of teachers, to look at, and discuss the program, the materials, review samples of activities, explore methods of student engagement, assessments, ask questions about student work, and hopefully get what they need or at least a start on connecting with folks that can continue to assist them online beyond our session, beyond the conference by joining our learning communities.

What this looks like is indicative of what you saw in the hastily snapped pictures shared above and below. I believe there is real credence to what the Superintendent stated as an overarching goal. I just don’t believe that traditionally structured conferences are currently designed well to achieve those objectives. We have found that programs that engage teachers in the development of authentic learning products that adequately allow them to express their full instructional creativity and curricular craft in collaborative teams, both lends to their professional growth, and serve as rich experiences for discovery and discourse with other teachers when examining those products for use in their own classrooms. And when those products are intentionally designed and published as useable curricular artifacts in an accessible digital environment, people will indeed breach fire-codes to gather, engage and secure the practices shared by other quality instructors. This is what we propose a professional learning community looks like and how it gets shared out to others. Let the “cloning” begin.