Student-Led Tech Conference Inspires More Ideas in Riverside, Calif.

The conference for students and by students could lead to other conferences and parent nights this year.

by / January 6, 2017
Alexis Lopez (left) and another student lead a game in one of their sessions at the Middle School Technology Conference on Oct.12, 2016. Photo via Nikki Pearson

School districts may spend time and money helping teachers learn how to incorporate technology into learning, but not invest as much in preparing students and parents. 

"We're training teachers, but then when kids are going in their classrooms, they also need the training to understand and utilize the technology that their teachers are using and expecting them to use, and we don't really have a student training program of any sort," said Steve Kong, instructional services specialist at Riverside Unified School District in Southern California.

So last year, Riverside embarked on a journey to change that, and enlisted students to help. The district plans to continue the journey this year with a parent night and possibly another conference for students. It all started with a project idea Kong came up with during his participation in the Google for Education Certified Innovator Program — an idea to have older students teach younger students about things they need to know before attending middle school, including hardware, software, time management, social engagement and appropriate social media use. 

Kong posed the idea to leaders at Sierra Middle School, which serves seventh- and eighth-graders, and they decided to run with it. But they had to agree to give them ideas, but ultimately be hands-off and give students ownership over the conference.

Along with Kong, Personalized Learning Manager Kerri Valenzuela, English teacher Nikki Pearson and three other teachers worked with a group of 32 eighth-graders who put on the Middle School Technology Conference 2016 on Oct. 12, 2016, for 300 sixth-graders at Bourns Technology Center. High school students shared keynotes while the eighth-graders led sessions, registered students and welcomed them to the conference — even thinking of small touches like having an eighth-grader who had graduated from a particular elementary school welcome students from that school when they came in on the bus.

"I was just blown away how they were making their presentations to the students," Pearson said. "They were professional, they were mature; they worked really well with those kids." 

The experience helped eighth-graders Alexis Lopez and Karla Gutierrez overcome their shyness, manage their time better and practice collaborating with people who have different ideas. The team of students came up with session ideas, picked partners and planned their sessions to include interactive components.

"At first, I was really shy, I was scared," Karla said. "But then once I started, I went with the flow, so it wasn't really that hard, and it was really exciting to get to do something that we think no one has done before."

Other schools across the country have had students lead conferences for teachers or parents, and students ran a global online Student Technology Conference in 2016 designed for students, teachers and administrators. But the Riverside conference takes a little different approach by pulling in feeder elementary schools, current middle school students and former students who are now in high school in the district.

This conference is something that Lopez said she wished she had before coming to Sierra Middle School. She came from an elementary school farther away, so she didn't know anyone at Sierra.

"If I had a tech conference, I might have been a little more comfortable because you get to engage with other students as well at the conference," Lopez said, "and you learn a little more about the middle school, and it gives you more confidence."

The conference went so well that the district is interested in doing another one in the fall, though plans have not yet been made. Some of the same students are also starting to plan a parent conference in the spring to introduce their parents to personalized learning.

The district as a whole is moving slowly to a learning model designed around the needs and interests of each student. And Sierra Middle School wants to help parents understand what their students will be doing in class because the experience will be so different from the one they had when they grew up, Valenzuela said, adding that she hopes this student-run parent night will draw their parents in.

"A lot of times," she said, "if parents know that their child is doing something, they'll come."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.