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 New York Summer Conferences Break the Mold


Say the words “summer conference” and the following probably comes to mind:

  • Sitting for hours in a stiff chair in a dimly lit meeting room…
  • Watching a yawn-inducing slideshow while sifting through stacks of handouts…
  • Engaging in a “Survivor”-styled team competition involving scavenger hunts, mental challenges and feats of strength in the great outdoors???

If you’re an agriculture educator in New York, your answer—most definitely—is the latter.

A new tradition

Traditionally, summer conferences feature keynote speakers, meetings and workshops or tours. Teachers come together for a few days, collect helpful handouts and attend most of their sessions before going along their merry way.

“If you have time to organize an event like this, the benefits are invaluable for building relationships between educators. It removed them from the daily grind of going to school and put them in a completely new environment that had some excitement, some challenges and some opportunities for growth.” –Shari Lighthall

That’s the kind of conference the New York Association of Agriculture Educators used to sponsor—until its officers decided to change up the formula in 2006 to boost attendance, increase participation and enliven program content.

“We wanted to create something that filled people’s time appropriately so that if they didn’t know anybody, they had that interactive experience that also provided them rewarding professional development,” explained Shari Lighthall, conference coordinator and professional development specialist for Cornell Agricultural Outreach and Education.

Survivor: Oswegatchie

Lighthall and other planning-committee members, all fans of TV’s “Survivor,” recognized an opportunity to reinvent their summer conference by formatting it after the reality show. After developing the initial concept, they turned to the state’s FFA leadership training center to help design and run the event.

To kick off the new themed conference, participants were divided into teams. Each team represented all ages, genders and experience levels. Just like on the TV show, participants wore a “buff” (bandana) in their team’s color, along with a matching T-shirt.

Conference workshops and activities combined mental and physical activities with curricula the teachers used in their schools. Teams earned points for participating in various competitions, including skills tests, scavenger hunts, puzzles and races (on foot, bike, kayak and more!). At the end of Survivor Oswegatchie, each member of the winning team was rewarded with a digital camera for their school.

“The ‘team’ approach to the conference was exciting and motivating,” said William Stowell, of South Jefferson High School in Adams, N.Y. “The competitive spirit we see every year in our students shines when you see the advisors to those students compete in interactive activities designed to enlighten our educationally tired minds.”

Nope, no no-shows

The dynamic theme and interactive setup had the effect of boosting session attendance to 100 percent.

“While sometimes in the past teachers would skip out and go to another location, the people at this conference needed to collect clues at workshops and identify materials for their teams,” said Tara Berescik, past president of NYAAE and an agriculture instructor for Tri-Valley High School in Grahamsville, N.Y. “The team strategy meant that the information presented in the workshops would be used in challenges later on, and people wanted to do well.”

The most significant impact of the new format? “The biggest piece we learned, which was more valuable than any game or activity, was the camaraderie that was built between teachers,” Lighthall said.

“To put together a conference that teachers can enjoy—workshops that teachers can participate in with hands-on exercises just like their students—is truly awesome,” remarked Jon Clayson, an NYAAE officer and agriculture educator at Pioneer Central School in Yorkshire, N.Y.

CSI: Oswegatchie

Building on excellent response to the “Survivor” program, NYAAE presented a “CSI”-themed conference in 2007—emphasizing agricultural career science investigation. This time, teachers gathered with their “CSI unit” and searched for the means, motive and opportunity to achieve success in their agriculture program. Again, teams competed in races, skills tests and puzzles to earn points. That year’s winners each took home an iPod.

Of course, it takes a hard-working, committed group of individuals to pull off an inventively themed conference. Lighthall credits New York’s success to each of the NYAAE officers, Cornell Agricultural Outreach and Education, and the Career Pathways program, led by project director Terry Hughes, which provides teachers with resources to take home—as well as funding for the sought-after prizes.

Said Berescik, “I have been a teacher in New York for eight years, and I feel like I got to know the teachers in my state better through these interactive conferences. Hearing the comments from other teachers and watching people mingle and come out of their shells helped to make the state association more cohesive and really did strengthen our agricultural education.”

On tap for ’08

This summer’s conference, called “Cultivate New York,” goes back to more traditional roots. Gone is the elaborate theme, and in its place is a hands-on culinary food-science experience for teachers at the New York State Wine & Culinary Center.

“This is a place where agriculturists go to cultivate food and beverages that we eat every day,” explained Lighthall. “It is an educational and entertaining experience at this experiential gateway, and it’s basically going to expose them to the food, wine and culinary industries.”

For next year, however, the planning committee intends to revisit the themed, interactive format—and no wonder. The results speak for themselves.

“Since we went to the new format,” Clayson said, “our enrollment for conferences has doubled, and our enrollment in NYAAE has jumped every year since. We are attracting not just high school ag teachers, but college professors from universities as well.”

For more information on the teachers in this article, please click on the links below:

William Stowell

Tara Berescik

Jon Clayson