22 January 2007

Conferences as an undergrad, what's in it for me?

My first experience attending a professional conference happened in December, during the last week of the Fall semester. I missed class on Friday, but the experience was well worth the absence.
Let's rewind to December 2005 for a minute; Professor Mark Winslow, my university advisor, called me and asked if I would be interested in going to Salt Lake City, Utah for the National Science Teachers Association regional conference the following year. As any normal college student would, I replied with "Of course! But what is it going to cost?" So Prof. Winslow outlined his plan in which we would apply for a grant to pay my way, with the condition that I give a presentation at the conference. My first thought was, "What information do I have that would be useful to people who are already teachers?" He went on to relate just what we would talk about and convinced me this was a good idea, even though I remained skeptical.
So he submitted our proposal, we applied for the grant, and we finalized our travel plans. Before I knew it I was helping Prof. Winslow adapt a lab manual he had written to fit a free planetarium software. Unless you are registered as a vendor, the NSTA frowns on pushing a product during your presentation, hence our choice of a free software program.
He had written a manual to go along with Starry Night and we adapted this manual to fit Stellarium. Both programs are useful in assisting educators with observing opportunities when the weather does not want to cooperate. If it's cloudy outside, just fire up Stellarium and you can look at the sky on your computer. Teachers usually find observing difficult unless there are a number of telescopes for students to look through; these planetarium programs make it much easier to keep students engaged in the learning process by limiting the number of "telescopes" only to the number of computer monitors in their lab.
While I was at the conference Professor Winslow and I showed 65 teachers how they could use Stellarium in their classrooms and teach the "nature of science" to their students.
I was amazed at the receptivity of the teachers. Several educators told me how useful they felt this would be in their classrooms and that they would be "putting the materials to good use immediately". This was an enormous encouragement to me. Not only had I experienced professional growth, I had an effect on others that would trickle down to their students.
The entire trip was a great development opportunity for me. I worked on my public speaking skills,
I was able to attend several other presentations in which I got materials for use in my classroom, and I was able to visit with other pre-service and new teachers who have some of the same fears I have. We were able to encourage each other based on our own experiences.
I highly recommend attendance at a professional conference, if the opportunity presents itself. At the very least, when you get into the your chosen profession and are required to get professional development, try and convince your administrators to send you to a conference, even if you cannot give a presentation. National conferences are preferable, but regional conferences give ample possibilities for enrichment, too. Talk to your university advisor to see if there are conferences in your discipline that would fit your budget and schedule. If attendance at a conference or workshop is cost prohibitive, look for scholarship opportunities; they are available but may sometimes be difficult to find.

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