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Kids are the “Leaders of Today” – Highlights from Ed Conferences in Georgia & Wyoming

By Steven Cooper

Athens, Georgia, and Laramie, Wyoming, both witnessed at least a partial solar eclipse back in August, and both are home to state universities, but did you know both cities recently hosted K12 education conferences? In early November, Athens welcomed hundreds of Georgia teachers and administrators to learn new ideas about implementing STEAM (STEM + Arts), and about a week later, scores of K-20 educators from around Wyoming descended on Laramie to learn how to make learning more relevant and engaging for students in the 21st century. Both conferences set out to revolutionize education. Here are the highlights:

Women in STEM Shouldn’t be the Exception

Keynote speaker at the Georgia STEM Forum, Stephanie Espy, said she was the exception as both a woman and a minority in STEM. But she urged educators in the audience to challenge this reality. At a time when it was rare for women to pursue technical studies, she earned her BS in Chemical Engineering, MS in Chemical Engineering, and an MBA – all at prestigious universities. In her case, both of her parents are engineers who encouraged her to follow her passion. After parents, she said teachers are the next in line as the most important mentors who can play a pivotal role in encouraging females and minorities to pursue STEM subjects.

Creating Lifelong Learners

Travis Allen of the iSchool Initiative energized educators at the Wyoming Innovations in Learning Conference with a call to action in his keynote. He said teachers must strive to 1) Excite, 2) Educate and 3) Engage. By taking this approach, teachers will create lifelong learners. He explained how he and his team traveled the country in what he coined “The Escape Bus.” The only way elementary students could “escape“ is to use “critical thinking skills.” According to Travis, teachers need to be “less helpful” allowing students to “get uncomfortable,” and they should not tell children they are the “leaders of tomorrow,” but rather that they are the “leaders of today!” He concluded by emphasizing the importance of having students tackle real-world issues in order to engage in truly meaningful learning.

Promoting Deep Learning

Also at the Wyoming Innovations in Learning Conference,Ken Bain of Best Teachers Institute noted that there are three  different types of learners: 1) Deep Learners, who learn for the sake of learning, 2) Surface Learners, who are adept at cramming for surface knowledge-based tests, and 3) Strategic Learners, who strategically memorize facts for the test and are usually at the top of their class, but don’t recall much long-term. He called this last group “grade grubbers” who tend not to be risk-takers and end up with a more superficial understanding; Ken noted that “Deep Learners” are also “adaptive experts” who solve problems in the economy, social fabric, ozone, Gulf of Mexico, etc. Instead of motivating students to prepare for a specific test, he said educators should focus on inspiring learning for the sake of learning in order to help students develop essential critical thinking skills.

Forging Global Connections Through STEAM Learning

At both conferences, I showed educators that even in an extremely rural state (like Wyoming) they can connect their students with a pen pal/lab partner in another country through Level Up Village (LUV) courses. Moreover, students can address real-world challenges and create prototypes that improve access to clean water or provide alternative power sources by working together with their global partners on STEM projects. To get started, educators can fill out LUV’s contact form, and once they’re signed up, they are enrolled in LUV’s online professional development to prepare for their students’ first virtual global STEAM collaboration course. Several school districts in Georgia are already working with LUV and even more in both Georgia and Wyoming will be starting in 2018.

At both conferences, educators came away with new ideas on how to challenge their students, break stereotypes, avoid asking “Googleable questions”, and provide “uncomfortable” activities that promote students’ academic growth. Increasingly, educators are focused on giving K12 students opportunities to engage in meaningful cross-curricular projects, helping them to develop the essential 21st Century skills they need to become the “leaders of today.”