ISTE 2016: Maker Education, Computer Science...and Drones?

By Benjamin Herold — June 24, 2016 3 min read
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The country’s largest education technology conference kicks off in Denver this weekend with a focus on teaching computer science, turning students into hands-on “makers,” and experimenting in the classroom with everything from smart watches to programmable drones.

To help schools make sense of the rapidly changing digital landscape, the International Society for Technology in Education will also be releasing a “refresh” of its popular technology standards for students.

As usual, the annual gathering will no doubt be characterized by fevered (and often silly) attempts by the 500 companies expected to be in attendance to promote their wares to 16,000-plus teachers, school administrators, technology leaders, and other educators from across the country and globe.

But for a field still struggling to figure out what to do with a flood of new devices, platforms, software, and apps, the conference is also a time for listening, said Jim Flanagan, ISTE’s chief learning-services officer.

“We’re at a point where the practitioners in the field who are using these new tools and pedagogies day to day are coming back and sharing what’s working and what’s not,” Flanagan said. “The opportunity to hear their stories and reflect on that is critical.”

At the top of the program, this year’s ISTE will feature keynotes from a diverse trio: futurist and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Princeton African-American studies professor Ruha Benjamin, and 3rd grade teacher Michelle Cordy. A series of “EdTekTalks,” meanwhile, will feature Ayah Bdeir (founder and CEO of modular electronics company littleBits), Amelia Rose Earheart (the first woman to fly around the world in a single engine aircraft), and mother-daughter duo Janice Johnson Dias and Markey Dias (the driving forces between the #1000BlackGirlBooks effort, to promote books with strong, relatable black female characters.)

ISTE’s annual “pitchfest,” meanwhile, will feature 12 companies, ranging from Cogent Education, which makes “interactive case studies for biology,” to Books That Grow, a web app that is among the latest in a series of digital tools aimed at providing common texts at a variety of reading levels. Past winners include online tutoring platform Mathspace (2015, in Philadelphia) and open curriculum platform LearnZillion (2013, San Antonio.)

Empowering Students

The heart of ISTE, however, are the 1,000-plus sessions led by teachers, principals, technology coaches, specialists, and vendors.

This year’s program features no less than three-dozen workshops, panels, and posters focused on the burgeoning “maker movement” in K-12. Topics range from the “The Mindset of a Maker Educator” to how to build a “low-tech, no-tech makerspace” to a variety of sessions on what this model of hands-on, do-it-yourself education can look like in elementary classrooms. The popularity of the topic at this year’s conference is just another sign that K-12 schools are rushing to embrace this new trend, despite ongoing confusion and questions (chronicled in-depth by Education Week in our recent Technology Counts annual report.)

Also popular on this year’s docket is coding and computer-science instruction. Sessions including “Infusing Computational Thinking Into Science Classrooms,” “Write Code Now in Elementary Classrooms,” and “Art-Duino: Connect Computer Science, Art and Technology With Project-Based Learning.”

And, as always, there will be space at the conference for the fun, weird, and out-there. Is your school ready to connect to the Internet of Things? What are the applications of the Apple Watch in the classroom? How can teachers get students programming drones to play “quidditch,” the fictional sport popularized in the Harry Potter series?

Both the now and the new will be central to the “refreshed” student technology standards that ISTE will unveil during the conference, Flanagan said.

“The growth of making, of learning by doing, is a real manifestation of our focus on student empowerment,” he said. “The evolution we’re seeing just makes sense.”

Photo: Educators participate in a Minecraft training session last year at the ITSE 2015 educational technology conference in Philadelphia.--Charles Mostoller for Education Week

See also:

on Twitter and @educationweek on Instagram for live coverage of ISTE 2016.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.