The COVID-19 global crisis has pushed norms and closed doors across the world. This rapid retraction of society left many of us feeling limited and – for want of a more unique term – isolated. “Until further notice” has become the standard phrase to measure the longevity of the enormous change. Indeed, after more than six months of carefully curating an outstanding international speakers list, organiser Dr Scott Sleap made the disappointing decision to close the lid on the STEM 2020 Conference that was scheduled to take place at venues in the Hunter Valley, Port Macquarie, Bathurst and Wagga Wagga this year.
“There was no choice but to make it, but the decision to cancel this year’s event didn’t sit right with me” he recalls.
“We couldn’t go ahead with a 1000-plus attendance event – it just couldn’t happen. Still, I didn’t want to let all that effort, the experts taking part, the resources being shared to enrich STEM learning for thousands of kids across the country go to waste.”
Instead, Scott gave the organising team the, at the time unimaginable, task of moving the conference to an online, on-demand format. Within a short period of time, the STEM 2020 Conference On Demand series launched (on April 27). The team had no way to anticipate the uptake by the education sector in a platform that was only a few months ago still an emerging concept for mass participation events.
“The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted us, certainly,” says Scott.
“But disruption is rarely an overall negative, and it forced us to think creatively.
“The STEM 2020 Online and On Demand platform flipped our expectations from feeling deflated to absolutely energised. Since registrations opened, more than 4,500 registrants have signed up and our speakers’ presentations have been downloaded and viewed over 4,000 times in the first week.
“There is no way we could have reached that many using the normal conference approach.”
Scott said the on-demand delivery has ongoing benefits for teachers and users of the materials. He explained the WHOVA conferencing app allowed the conference to be accessible for several more weeks, an advantage not offered in the stand-and-deliver conference that was planned before the pandemic.
“We’ve been given a unique opportunity to provide durable content. Using app-based and online resources teachers across Australia can communicate with our conferencing app and stream content from our website when it suits their curriculum planning and stage of student learning.
“What has come out of this event is probably a better outcome for teachers in our rural, regional and remote areas. They are generally the ones who miss out on conference attendance due to a range of limiting factors such as budgets, time away from teaching, lack of casual teachers and physical distances to travel, more so now than ever.”
“Through on-line delivery, we’ve been able to greatly increase participation, and our data shows that a broader mix of registrants are taking part from all over the country.
So successful was the first week of the virtual conference that the NSW Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning, The Hon. Sarah Mitchell, MLC, was inspired by the potential this resource had for educators in the post-COVID learning environment.
She said that the on-demand format has enabled more STEM-focused teachers to take part and benefit from the expert speakers. The participation shown in the first week of the conference going live has been incredible.
“STEM subjects are vital for our students and their future, and our STEM teachers are among the most energetic and innovative.
“I hope everyone continues to use the online professional learning materials [available to them through the on-demand platform] to support their students as we navigate the challenging conditions of this pandemic.”
The first week of the STEM 2020 On Demand conference has included incredible insights from thought and industry leaders in STEM.
A major keynote speaker is none other than Sir Ken Robinson, a leading advocate for encouraging students to think and learn with creativity. Having him present to the conference in this time was pertinent, as teachers are seeking more and more inspirational ways to engage students in learning from a distance.
“Sir Ken’s talk examines young minds, ways to unlock them and tap creative potential. Students can be encouraged to examine problems through a creative lens, to workshop and trouble-shoot by leveraging an innate sense of possibility that they may not have been attuned to.
“Students are living in a challenging world now and many are having to find their own motivation and ability to see past the perceived limitations of remote learning.
“Sir Ken’s approach empowers students to build trust in the learning journey and harness their unique way of thinking about things. This leads to unique solutions to typically overwhelming problems and ultimately stimulates students’ willingness to venture into new areas of learning and discovery,” says Scott.
“In any setting, STEM discovery thrives through the type of creative thinking Sir Ken talks about. Our classrooms – virtual or actual – will benefit from his wisdom ongoing.”
The STEM 2020 Conference speakers list was carefully considered to create balance, equity and inclusion, curating content and speakers with diversity of expertise and energy.
“We wanted to promote thought-leadership from all backgrounds and contexts of STEM in schools,” says Scott.
“We’ve had great feedback on talks from Lisa Harvey-Smith and Jordan Nguyen who approach the engagement of young people in STEM from their own experiences but share a passion for STEM learning without barriers.”
“Our data has shown that each presenter and workshop has transferability and that participants have recognised the practical value of the material in classrooms”, says Scott.
“The ongoing benefits of this knowledge translation will be worth observing. Over four thousand participants, just in this week, will go on to spread what they’ve learned into four thousand classrooms and into hundreds of “staff zooms”. What would you call that level of transmission?”
“We’re confident that the future of STEM in our schools is in good, clean hands as a result of STEM 2020 On Demand,” says Scott.
“I want to thank all our speakers and presenters – they have really taken to the format and delivered highly-engaging content.”