Big Ideas Fest 2011

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“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
―Mary Oliver (quoted by Bill Ayers in his talk at Big Ideas Fest 2011)

Big Ideas Fest 2011

The Big Ideas Fest is like no other conference that I have attended. What is the Big Ideas Fest? As stated on the website:

“The annual Big Ideas Fest is an extraordinary immersion into collaboration and design that focuses on transformational change in K-20 education. Creative doers and thinkers from diverse levels of education gather to learn from and share with each other… Big Ideas Fest believes answers and innovation are all around us. The event gathers top minds to share their work and ideas in an environment that encourages risk-taking and overall imagining of the impossible.”

Big Ideas Fest 2011 was all of this and more.

The event was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), a non-profit research institute that is “dedicated to the study, spread, and strategic use of knowledge management in education”. Among ISKME’s projects is one close to Radiant Science Learning’s heart: OER commons. OER commons is a leader in providing accessible educational content. Their mission is to make educational resources freely available. The goal of making these resources freely available is to reduce the barriers to access to quality educational materials and to open these materials to editing, altering, and improving through “crowd-sourcing”. OER Commons is an excellent repository of educational resources, such as syllabi, labs, exams, that are free to use and openly licensed.

The Speakers

Sprinkled throughout the conference were a series of “Rapid Fire” talks on topics ranging from personalized education (Brewster Kahle) to prisoner education (Jody Lewen) to STEAM education.

Among the highlights of the conference were talks given by Bill Ayers (University of Illinois at Chicago) who encouraged us to “pay attention, be astonished and tell about it”; Gerald Richards (826 National) who discussed his company’s innovative tutoring centers located around the country; Neeru Khosla (CK-12 Foundation) who discussed her organization’s published open source textbooks; and AnnMarie Polsenberg Thomas (University of St Thomas) who introduced us to squishy circuits – circuits using homemade conductive dough as a didactic tool. Other notable speakers included Enrique Gabriel Legaspi, who gave an inspiring and insightful talk on mindful learning through creation, curation and sharing; Martha Kanter (U.S. Department of Education); Barbara Chow (The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) and Mark Milliron (Western Governors University Texas).

Since a brief summary of all the excellent conference talks is not possible here, I encourage you to look at the complete list of the speakers, available HERE.

The Design Challenge

If you think this was a sit-back, look-around, and-listen-to-good talks conference, think again! This was a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-to-work conference. In fact, one of the conference’s most interesting and unique features was that it engaged its participants, all innovators in their own right, to innovate… and innovate together! The conference organizers divided the conference participants into nine teams, each of which had to develop a prototype addressing a “cumbersome issue in education.” The goal of the exercise was to prepare us for the process of researching, designing, prototyping and scaling a ‘Big Idea’. To the credit of the Big Ideas Fest organizers, this goal was largely achieved. Needless to say, this exercise was an inspiring, sometimes frustrating, and altogether valuable learning experience. Thanks again to Rich Cox, my team’s facilitator, for being “Made of Awesome”.

Must Mention

Finally, I must mention Nilaja Sun’s performance of No Child…a semi-autobiographical, one woman play set in in a school in The Bronx, in which she switches character from moment to moment in what can only be described as a masterful performance. It was a brilliant production that should not be missed!

Special thanks to Dr. Lisa Petrides, President, ISKME; Megan Simmons, Education Program Manager; Letha Kay Goger, Digital Librarian; Rudy Rubio, Research Assistant and all the other ISKME planners and participants. Thanks to ISKME for making it possible for Radiant Science Learning LLC to be represented at the Big Ideas Fest 2011 through the Scholarship Program.


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“Go rocket ship! Go!”

“Go, rocket ship! Go!”

That is what my two and a half year old cheered over and over again as we watched the last space shuttle launch today. She was exuberant as she saw the Atlantis soar into the sky, unbeknownst to her, for the last time. As her enthusiasm infected me I remembered the first time I saw the shuttle Columbia launch in 1981. I remember space telescope Hubble in orbit, Pathfinder landing on Mars, Dolly being cloned, the human genome being sequenced…

What “rocket ships” will her children cheer for?

Go rocket ship, go…..

Welcome to the Radiant Science Blog

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“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” -Saint Exuprey

This is a quote about…. science education. I am certain that the author of “The Little Prince” was using shipbuilding as a metaphor for adventure and travel; after all, Exuprey was a pioneer of early flight. An adventurer and risk-taker, he used airplanes with little instrumentation and in fact survived several crashes (alas, except his last). He was dismissive of pilots who flew more technologically advanced airplanes and said they were “more like accountants that pilots”.

What does it have to do with education? There has been a flurry of discussion and an opening of the national discourse on public education with movies like “Waiting for Superman“. The message we are getting from the media is clear, the education system in the United States is broken. There is however, good news. For the first time in American history more women have graduated with advanced degrees than men and since 1980 the average drop out rate has decreased by about half. Even so, we have a long way to go. We still have an average drop out rate of 8 percent. By all accounts we are falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. Two recent international surveys, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rank HS students in the United States 21st and 9th respectively in science literacy. The US is behind countries like Finland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Estonia and Australia. Even though we have made improvements in educational outcomes over the last 30 years, our education system is lagging behind other industrialized countries like China. The concern is understandable; the pool of the next generation of technological innovators educators and entrepreneurs will be smaller. In short, the United States is setting itself up to be out-competed in the world arena of high-tech.

What is the solution? Should we make testing a priority? Should we increase class time? Start more charter schools? With limited financial resources, should we reward teachers with a successful track record financially? How can we make sure that we fully engage young students with science and technology education? These are questions with many answers depending on who you ask.

Exuprey’s quote is instructive. In addition to the myriad of policy approaches and funding solutions (the approach the ‘pilot accountants’ Exuprey vilified would propose), we have to change the way we think about teaching the sciences to young people. Learning, and yes, teaching is an adventure. Teaching students to “yearn for the vast and open sea” is the one thing that will guarantee that they continue learning long after they leave the classroom.