As education continues to shift to away from in-person delivery, the Infosys Foundation USA’s Pathfinders Summer Institute followed suit. Our annual teacher training institute is praised for its unique model that brings computer science and maker education curriculum providers together with a diverse group of K-12 educators from around the country in one place for a week of intensive professional development and community building. However, this year we had to change course because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Not willing to give up on this signature program, we pushed ahead, albeit toward a new, unfamiliar virtual format, just as our teachers did in their own classrooms this spring.
The inaugural Pathfinders Summer Institute took place in July 2018 at Indiana University Bloomington and this year’s Institute was poised to be our third return to the Hoosier state. Historically, K-12 teachers from around the country come together for a week of intensive computer science and maker education professional development that is then shared with their students once the school year starts. Richard Isham, a fourth-grade teacher from North Carolina remarked, “Pathfinders in the only PD that I’ve ever attended in 16 years that truly allows for collaboration with teachers from across the country.” The success of Pathfinders is perhaps most evident by the growing number of teachers who return year after year – 126 of this year’s 424 teachers – and the increasing demand for new activations. Since 2018, we have added a Pathfinders Online Institute, as well as a Pathfinders Winter Institute to keep the community learning and thriving year-round.
This year we had to think differently. By mid-March, when the pandemic took hold, the Foundation team was already months into planning with teacher applications steadily rolling in and travel reservations being booked. However, it quickly became clear that we would not be able to move forward as planned. While numerous conferences had already announced a shift to virtual convenings, we were unsure if we would be able to deliver the same hands-on, collaborative training via e-meetings. After consulting our curriculum provider partners and assessing various online meeting platforms, we were optimistic that we could move ahead and still offer high-quality CS and maker education professional development in a new way.
Fast forward to last week – July 19-24 – when we welcomed 424 teachers from around the country to login from their homes for five-days of learning together - while physically distanced. It was crucial to maintain the same campus-like sense of community, despite the fact that educators and facilitators were not in one place. Teachers joined us daily through a virtual campus, met each other in the virtual teachers’ lounge and joined collaborative evening activities – such as an escape room hosted by Puzzle Break and Family Code Night – through a virtual auditorium.
While we endured some minor technical hurdles, the results were outstanding. Notably, we reached numerous teachers who previously would not have been unable to travel to Indiana due to familial, personal or other obligations. And while the Pathfinders Institute is always an opportunity for the teachers to become the students, this year that was even more important. Our educators felt first-hand some of the unique challenges of being on the other side of remote learning and they are now better equipped to adapt and know how to best implement the curriculum they learned virtually should they still be teaching from home this fall.
Though the future is still unclear, it is obvious that the Pathfinders Institute makes a lasting impression. And while there is still a slight preference for the in-person over virtual format, 97% of teachers surveyed last week said they would participate in another Pathfinders Institute. In the end, the teachers recognize the value of this training for themselves and the thousands of students they serve. As one New Jersey teacher noted, "We have a duty as educators to give our students as much exposure and hands on experience with technology as we can".
Check Infosys.org/USA/ for updates on the Infosys Foundation USA and future Pathfinders Institute and follow us on Twitter @InfyFoundation. You can also sign-up for the Pathfinders Online Institute to learn CS and maker education for your own home: https://pathfinders.onwingspan.com/.