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Education Foo Camp: Fostering Innovations in Lifelong Learning

Fostering innovation requires setting up conditions for innovation to flourish. Last month, we held the first Education Foo Camp (or Ed Foo) at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA to do just that. Ed Foo was an “unconference” organized by Google, the U.S. Department of Education, Macmillan Publishing, O’Reilly Media (Foo stands for Friends of O’Reilly), Sesame Street and Scientific American that brought together bright thinkers to brainstorm solutions to tough challenges in public education.

At Foo Camps, which have been organized around a variety of different topics, no agenda is set before participants arrive. The campers set the agenda, which remains fluid throughout the weekend, so that participants can invest more time and energy in emerging and promising areas. The format of the events is flipped, so that they minimize presentations and maximize engagement, discussion, spontaneity, and innovation. The goal is to create a weekend-long incubator for creativity.

The journey to creating an education themed Foo camp began when I was invited to attend a Science Foo Camp (Sci Foo) at Google in 2015. It was a profound experience that brought together diverse groups of scientists, technologists, authors, media, and other experts across multiple disciplines to discuss key issues and form new collaborations that apply fresh eyes to possible solutions. When stakeholders come to the table motivated by the issues that matter to them most, innovation, rejuvenation, and new collaborations are the result.

Improving STEM education was one of the major areas of discussion at Sci Foo. I moderated a pop-up session on STEM education, which led to deeper discussions about increasing active learning experiences for students, and highlighted a new program by Google on providing expanded access to maker spaces. That session led to a collaboration on a pilot program that will help place Maker Spaces in underserved communities while identifying best practices for implementing similar programs in the future. This was just one of many discussions that led to further activity after the event. Attendees came away energized, refreshed and ready to tackle new challenges.

As I was leaving, I commented to the organizers that it had been a useful activity, but I wondered what the impact would be if we had an entire Foo camp devoted specifically to education. Why not have a concentrated weekend for thinking about innovation and how to create a nation of lifelong learners? A few months later we discussed the notion again at the Scientific American/Macmillan STEM Summit in NYC. Google graciously stepped forward and offered to host the first Ed Foo Camp along with O’Reilly Media, Macmillan, Scientific American, Sesame Workshop and the STEM Office at the U.S. Department of Education.

Our first Ed Foo was attended by approximately 250 educators, administrators, technologists, funders, researchers, media, and toy manufacturers. We also included innovators from outside the education community. Campers convened early in the morning and were still actively discussing education ideas and possible collaborations long after midnight. Few were ready to leave on Sunday. Sessions covered numerous topics as people gathered in small conference rooms, around tables, and even around a fake campfire. The discussions covered topics ranging from what preschools might look like in the future and the role of making and makers in education to programs for autism, the future of virtual reality, education videogames, and promoting computer science from preschool to college. There were also some overriding themes that emerged. Many discussions explored how to maximize active learning experiences inside and outside the classroom, the need to engage parents, and the need to think about the role and challenges of using technology for improving diversity and equity in education, particularly in the STEM fields.

We’re still hearing from participants about the many follow-ups that have already been scheduled to explore collaborations and to continue learning from each other. We’ve received feedback from many campers that this was one of the most useful education events they’ve ever attended. Most importantly, we are already discussing how we might improve the experience in the future. Here in the STEM office, Ed Foo is already bearing fruit, as we support the Administration’s initiatives to bring quality computer science and STEM to all students, provide more active learning experiences through making, and promote quality STEM education starting in preschool. Meanwhile, the organizing committee is assessing what worked and what needs to be improved for future gatherings. Hopefully, this will be the first of many Ed Foo events and will also be a model for other events aimed at promoting innovation.