Science at SXSW EDU: 3 themes to bring back to our science classrooms (and beyond!)

An NFL player, a US poet laureate, a YouTube star, and the US Secretary of Education walk into a room…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was actually my experience at SXSW EDU 2023. It may sound unreal, but SXSW EDU brings an integrated approach to imagining the future of education that is truly no joke.

I had the privilege of attending SXSW EDU 2023 and co-hosting a workshop on integrating social justice into the science classroom. During the four days of the conference, I built Lego sculptures to represent abstract concepts, heard insights from exceptional educators, like the national teachers of the year, explored how tech tools including social media and AI can support students and promote equity, and heard from students who use coding and engineering to design dance performances. I spent quality time away from my day-to-day work co-creating a vision for the future of education filled with joy, pragmatism, creativity, and, most of all, hope.

Over the course of this experience, three main themes emerged for me around the future of science education (and education in general). Here are those themes, along with a few resources I discovered during the conference.

#1: Stories are critical, and they make content accessible, meaningful, and relevant

There are so many kinds of stories. We often think of folk tales, songs, and film, but what about data? Part of analyzing and interpreting data is uncovering what stories exist in a data set, how those stories impact us, and how our experiences and biases impact the stories we notice. In the science classroom, data connects with students when we help kids find stories that matter to them.

What can we do in the classroom today? Challenge students to create their own data stories by combining robust data with critical questions. Data Nuggets are free, data-centered activities co-designed by scientists and teachers that cover a variety of life and earth science topics. Census at School hosts an international database of student-generated survey information about our students’ favorite topic: themselves. Combine meaningful data sets with the types of questions in the equity on-ramps for the science classroom to explore how data stories can perpetuate or dismantle inequity.

#2: Education comes from a multitude of sources. Classrooms must value and leverage all of them

So many speakers at SXSW EDU discussed educational experiences that happen beyond classroom walls. These experiences might be digital, like Hank Green’s Study Hall program, which provides low-cost college credits through YouTube videos, or real-world, like the NewComm Fellows project, which uses deep study of literature to develop community-based engineering projects.

A common theme was finding ways to connect these out-of-school experiences to the classroom to enhance and support learning for all students. Whether we are finding new insights from traditionally disconnected disciplines, uplifting voices that have been historically silenced, or exploring ways to make higher education more available, learning experiences of the future can be more connected, more diverse, and more meaningful than ever before.

What can we do in the classroom today? Design lessons that provide opportunities to incorporate knowledge from other disciplines, prior experiences, and the local community. Use these lessons to drive engagement in issues that matter beyond the classroom walls. For example, our “It’s Hot Out Here” science unit combines historical sociopolitical data, current environmental data, and student experiences to help students understand the impacts of heat on people and how we can mitigate these impacts for the people who are most affected.

#3: Persistent inequity in education remains a daunting challenge but progress is possible using the astounding array of tools, strategies, and insights we already possess   

Most sessions at SXSW EDU discussed at least one significant barrier to equity in education. However, these challenges were paired with the astounding creativity, expertise, and drive of each presenter. Ultimately, I left the conference feeling empowered and energetic, ready to continue my own work toward making science educational experiences more effective, inclusive, and equitable for students.

What can we do in classrooms today? Stay hopeful, find fun, and keep at it. Strategies from Critical Creativity in Action in particular help students build understanding in ways that promote whimsy and joy.

Making changes that last

We know transforming education isn’t easy, but we also know we can do it. Because when an NFL player, a US poet laureate, a YouTube star, and the US Secretary of Education walk into a room, you just know that something is coming that is bound to be innovative, inspiring, and better than ever.

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