Why I’m Returning to Big Ideas Fest

We are excited that past participant Thomas Voden (Associate Professor of Mathematics and STEM Grant Director at Glendale Community College) will be returning to Big Ideas Fest this year as an Action Collab apprentice facilitator.

Action Collabs are an integral part of Big Ideas Fest.These small workshops use design thinking and improv to create innovative solutions to challenges. As an apprentice facilitator, Tom will assist a group collaborating through that process.

Let’s hear why Tom is returning to Big Ideas Fest, and why he thinks you should join him:

Why are you coming back as a facilitator?

It’s a super interesting process to get a room full of strangers from really different backgrounds working on a common wavelength, or struggling when they are not on a common wavelength.  This was a chance to do it from a slightly different perspective than I had as a participant last year. So I jumped on it.

What were the highlights from last year’s Big Ideas Fest?   

Most of the speakers were awesome and some were just exceptional, like Chris Emden. He’s a superstar and his talk was great. Clearly the conversations around the fire pit are always a highlight. A remarkable diversity of people come to the event, so hearing about what they are passionate about and where they see opportunity is a highlight.

How did Big Ideas Fest change the way you work?

After Big Ideas Fest we talked about projects bringing faculty together to focus on crossing disciplinary lines, which is a huge issue in education. Big Ideas Fest helped me use design thinking as a mechanism to bring together people who have diverse backgrounds but have a common interest, and as a way to focus attention on creating tangible outcomes.

It helped me see how professional development needs an equilibrium point between structure and freedom. You can’t just show up in a room and say, “We’re going to do some ‘cool’ stuff for students,” but you also can’t say “I know how to teach, teach like me.” It has to emerge from the group, so everyone has a sense of ownership.  That was one of the takeaways from Big Ideas Fest last year.

How is Big Ideas Fest different from other conferences?

It’s more diverse.The group I was in last year had a kindergarten teacher as well as a California State University administrator.  I don’t think there are a lot of other conferences that have those sorts of mixes of people, so that’s an interesting distinction that I really enjoy.

It also creates a structure that doesn’t allow participants to get lost in la la land, but doesn’t prescribe the context as forcefully as other conferences do. I like that.

What have you told your community about Big Ideas Fest?   

I talk with other educators about how to give students an experience that resonates with them and how to get groups to work together to create a productive dynamic in order to solve problems. This is akin to the Action Collab experience in that it isn’t something that can be done in the abstract. It needs to be experienced and then reflected upon.

For example, I can talk about how beautiful the language of math is, the power of the abstraction, that it’s void of context, and that the abstraction is its power. That might sound cool, weird, mysterious and even romantic but it will be meaningless until I give someone a problem they actually care about and want to solve. Only through their struggle, deconstruction of the problem into the language of mathematics, and then use of that language to create something new can they realize the true meaning of that power of abstraction.

Who should come to Big Ideas Fest?

This is probably a cliché answer but anyone interested in improving the educational environment within their sphere of influence. Anybody who sees that there is room for improvement and understands how hard it is to come up with tangible ideas for that improvement.  It’s one thing to recognize the problem; it’s another thing to come up with a tangible, feasible solution. I think the event can help anyone who sees that struggle.

Another batch of people would be anyone who enjoys being around passionate, motivated people of diverse professional backgrounds, diverse interest sets, and diverse goals.