I promised last time that I would report back on what I learned during my sojourn up into the Boston Mountains, but I’m not sure that I can relate it all in a single blog post. Over the course of two days my brain got filled and refilled with information, inspiration, and moments of absolute puzzlement (because I met some super smart people that know things). It was enough to make my head spin — but in a really good way.
To an extent, my time in Northwest Arkansas was an interesting call and response. The first summit was the Arkansas STEM Coalition’s. This full-day meeting focused on identifying the issues that our communities are facing in cultivating and sustaining the ecosystem that fosters growth of the critical skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and demonstrating what is being done to address this.
I’m not going to lie to you; there are some pretty significant gaps between perception and reality, between preaching and practice, and between deciding on a solution and actually acting on it. Keep in my mind, these are observations from my eyes; they are not the opinions of any sanctioned body (or necessarily even right). But I see teachers and students every day (inside and outside of EAST) that are doing great things; using technology and tools in innovative and exciting ways and building their capacity to think and create and all the things that people talk about schools needing to foster. The real gaps I see are that they are not done in a coordinated fashion and that we are not doing what we need to do institutionally to make sure that everyone knows what these things are.
But, my favorite part of the STEM Coalition meeting (because I’m biased) was the presentation over lunch by the students and administration from Springdale’s School of Innovation. Dr. Jim Rollins, Springdale’s Superintendent, talked about his drive to make sure that students have the opportunities to realize their potential using technology both as a tool for learning and as a springboard to learning. To prove his point, two of the School of Innovation’s students presented their work. One is prototyping a drone that can swim in the stormwater system and relay video in real time so that trash can be monitored and dealt with. He and his team are working with the University of Arkansas and the Tobacco Free Coalition to refine their ideas and model. Another student presented how she and her team were developing some sophisticated hydroponic and aquaponics systems so that the school can have an agricultural program that is as progressive as the rest of the school. The School of Innovation’s principal and the district’s EAST coordinator then tied all of the presentation up by explaining how the things the students were doing fit into a continuum in their education in ways that tied them to educational goals across the curriculum and to real world experiences working with local industry. It was really powerful, and I encourage you to learn more about the work that they’re doing. They’re onto something.
Other cool things: The team at the Amazeum are, in fact, pretty amazing and they understand what my good friend Ms. Lavita Wills-Hale preaches every day, “the learning shouldn’t stop because the formal learning institutions do.” They also understand that some of the best learning happens in the gaps between being given a task and being asked to present your finished product. If you’re anywhere close and need to recharge your energy, enthusiasm, and creativity, I recommend that you do what my friend Sam Dean recommends: “put on your princess costume, don your eye goggles, and go take apart a van at the Amazeum.”
The STEM Coalition meeting was a great setup, then, to the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, which was held the very next day. This one-day meeting featured some insightful presentations and discussions. I would say they showed us the future, but most of what they showed us was already happening. So, in a lot of ways, they just made sure we got to see the now, or at least a fraction of it.
The Tech Summit kicked off with a real eye-opening presentation by Dr. John Cohn who is an IBM fellow and a self-professed “mad scientist.” He was unafraid to bring the Internet of Things right into the Grand Ballroom while he encouraged us to grow and evolve with the future. We see it becoming more and more present, but our things are getting more and more connected and what we’ve seen over the past six or seven years is just the beginning of the beginning. Soon every science fiction movie you’ve ever seen will seem quaint, as it has to when your bathroom mirror will do a personalized health diagnostic for you every morning.
From there we broke out into so many session on so many things that if I tried to tell you about all of it, this post would run in chapters. My favorites were the demonstration of some of the technologies Arkansas Children’s Hospital is using to fulfill their mission; an overview of where we are now with drones (the flying ones, not Springdale’s swimming ones) presented by the good folks at Garver; cybersecurity concepts presented by Metova, a company based in Northwest Arkansas; and an update on the Fayetteville Innovation Lab and Robotic Center (which is analogous to one of my favorite places near home, the Innovation Hub).
When you combine all of this with large group session where Max Oglesbee of Intersection showed us all how to retrofit a large metropolis’ infrastructure with web-enabled public access portal and our friends from the Amazeum (again) blowing things up and the Vice Chairman of Citadel, Mr. Kevin Turner, coming back to Northwest Arkansas (where he got his start) to let us know that “the future belongs to the fast” and encourage to do, do, do. Oh, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke, too. What a day!
Now that I’ve had a few days to try to process all of the things I saw, I can report that there are some great things going on from the classroom, to the research center, to the makerspace, to the boardrooms of technical and technology-based organizations in the region. We are so lucky to have so much opportunity in front of us, and I am personally excited to know that EAST is helping to provide the pipeline that can keep this innovative thinking and development happening.
Until next time,