EMU and U-M join forces for conference on innovation in education

A new conference on Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) campus will focus on effectively using design thinking and social and emotional learning to improve kids' educational experiences.


Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures program and the University of Michigan's Institute for Innovation in Education have joined forces for the two-day Ideas to Action Conference, which runs June 28-29 on EMU's campus.


"We really try to give kids opportunities to practice emotional management, empathy, how to work in teams, responsibility, and initiative and problem-solving," says Will Spotts, assistant director for Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures. "It's great to say that we value these skills, but actually doing it in a pedagogically- and age-appropriate way is going to look different from pre-kindergarten all the way to college seniors."


Spotts says this is the fourth year Bright Futures has hosted a conference on social and emotional learning (SEL), and IIE has also convened its own "gatherings" in the past, but this is the first time the two groups have joined forces for a two-day look at educational best practices.


Bright Futures' philosophy around quality after-school programs and academic improvement has already been influenced and shaped by previous interactions with IIE, Spotts says, and the collaboration made sense.


He says Bright Futures conferences have typically attracted K-12 teachers and administrators and educational nonprofits, while IIE gatherings have typically pulled in researchers and thinkers who are bringing in non-mainstream ideas around education.


"We thought there was enough synergy and potential for cross-pollination, and we work with these folks regularly anyway, so we thought, 'What happens when you put your people together with us for a two-day joint affair?'" Spotts says.


Thursday's programming, a "Designing for Social and Emotional Learning" workshop led by IIE, centers on the idea of "design mindset."


"Famously, fixers want to fix things. They come in, see a problem, and apply a solution, without trying to get to the root of what the problem might be," Spotts says. In contrast, the design mindset gets to the roots of an issue and surveys stakeholders for their ideas to develop a solution.


Spotts says he thinks a workshop on the topic dovetails nicely with SEL, because the school day and after-school programs could both benefit from students expressing what they want out of the experience and exploring their own solutions to educational issues.


The Friday portion of the event is sponsored by Bright Futures and typically draws around 125 people, Spotts says.


The day will open not with a traditional keynote speech, but with a "Keynote Story Slam" that will set participants up to reflect on their experiences and what they've learned over the years. That will be followed by two 40-minute workshop sessions, where participants can choose from nine different themes ranging from "The Power of Storytelling" to "Using SEL with Trauma-Informed Practice."


During lunch, participants will write down topics they want to explore more during the "unconference" that will take up the rest of the day. Participants will be split up into groups of 10 or 15 people based on interest, with a facilitator who will help frame the conversation while letting participants decide where the conversation goes.


"They'll spend 45 minutes thinking out loud and networking," Spotts says. "It's a chance for people who might live in the same community but who might not know each other to find allies and think out loud together."


Spotts says Thursday's workshop was originally capped at 30 participants, but interest was high and registration "exploded," so the cap was moved to 55 people. Even after lifting the cap, Thursday is sold out and a waitlist has been formed. However, registration for Friday's event is still open via the EventBrite page for the conference.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of EMU Bright Futures.

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