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Organizing a statewide conference of STEM educators and administrators can be daunting. Even with the best planning, unforeseen problems happen. Paul Ainslie, managing director of the I-STEM Resource Network, knows about planning big meetings and handling last-minute glitches. The network recently co-sponsored its Spring 2017 Indiana STEM Education Taskforce Meeting in Fishers, northeast of Indianapolis. The STEM taskforce focused on College and Career Readiness or CCR, a critical area with many different stakeholders. There were some hiccups, but many insights were gained. He shared this about the meeting:

Q: In general, what was the goal of the conference?

A: The meeting was a joint effort of the I-STEM Resource Network and the Indiana Afterschool Network. The meeting was titled: “College and Career Readiness: Building Learning Ecosystems Across Indiana.”

Paul Ainslie details the latest meeting of the Indiana STEM Education Taskforce

The goal: share best practices and foster collaboration to expand college and career readiness in and out of school.

Q: Has participation grown over the years that you’ve held this get-together? How has the session evolved?

A: Participation in the Taskforce has grown from a little over 150 people to nearly 400 from across the state. We had about 130 attending this meeting. Over the four meetings we have held, we have evolved the messaging and focused topics to make it clear what the meeting was about, including goals and expected outcomes. It helps to write all the thinking down and argue about it for a while.

Q: Why was the theme chosen, and can you elaborate on it?

A: We have been working with the STEM Learning Ecosystems program from the STEM Funders Network for about two years. We decided that taking advantage of the integration of resources championed by STEM Learning Ecosystems was a good plan for improving College and Career Readiness (CCR).

We brought together leaders from different aspects of CCR (education, programs, employment) to address the opportunities. Ideally, local groups can see the power of identifying the resources in their community that can support CCR goals: business, higher education, K-12 education, nonprofits and government offices.

We probably don’t need more programs, but a better integration of the efforts. Most communities have more resources than they realize.

Q: Can you give us some highlights from the sessions, especially from the presentation by keynote speaker Dr. Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of public instruction at the Indiana Department of Education?

A: Probably the biggest insights came from the panel discussion in the morning and breadth of programs in the breakout sessions in the afternoon. Attendees were able to hear many views of the CCR issues and see the overlap in goals and resources. In particular, specific programs highlighted the financial, business and educational aspects of CCR programs.

Dr. McCormick had to send a sub at the last minute. Kelly Wittman, the state Department of Education’s chief academic officer, was on the panel and presented the keynote. One highlight: STEM education is one of the highest priorities for the department. This aligns with the workforce needs from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and with the governor’s office.

Kelly Wittman from the Indiana Department of Education  (left) keynoted the conference while Don Wettrick, an Indiana teacher, provided what Paul calls the “hook” for getting participants thinking.

Q: What organizational tips and/or lessons learned could you share with other statewide STEM networks thinking of holding such a gathering?

A: Statewide meetings are always a balance of speakers, location and topic(s). We scheduled this meeting based on Dr. McCormick’s availability, which didn’t pan out. Being flexible helps a lot.

Also, in almost every state, there are regional issues. We started at 10 a.m. because some parts of the state are on Central Time and travel is an issue for meetings starting earlier, and ended at 3 p.m. so people can get home. Still, most of the participants were from central Indiana.

Finally, we always look for a speaker/topical “hook” to capture some interest and get people thinking. Don Wettrick from Noblesville High School, just north of Fishers, teaches a class in entrepreneurship to 11th- and 12th-graders. His approach to learning is to start with “unlearning”: Stop learning the facts for the test and start thinking. This usually takes a few months for most students. Students create their own project to identify a need and create a solution. Not everything works out neatly, but there have been patents, business launches and successful apps released. And the students are forever changed by the experience.

After the meeting’s agenda is done, time to network is always essential. Lunch time is good, and some breaks, too. We also have breakout sessions for people to pursue their own interests and maybe meet some new people. In a five-hour meeting there is only so much you can cover.

It’s important to have a follow-up survey, if possible. And get permission to post presentations online.

Q: How do you plan to change things up, if at all, for the next session?

A: We want to find a way to get a broader audience to join us. Possible ideas include more social-media coverage and possibly a big-name speaker for the keynote. We are working on that.

We might also include more commercial vendors to help offset the costs, though that idea is not without issues.

Edited by Patricia Bitler, freelance writer and editor.

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