Conference season is upon us. It brings lots of opportunities for networking and learning new information about our field. However, not all conferences are created equal. Even so, they all have an important role to play.
April always seems to be the busiest month of the year. It starts and ends with conferences. I always enjoy conferences as they are a great opportunity to network and share resources. During my time in the aquarium field, I attended many conferences such as the National Science Teachers Association, the National Marine Educators Association, and several regional conferences.
We traveled to LA earlier this month to give three presentations at NSTA. It got me thinking about the difference between practitioner conferences and research conferences. Last year was my first year attending conferences as a researcher rather than a full time educator. It changed the way I looked at the practitioner conferences such as NSTA. When I went as an educator, in addition to offering a hands on session for teachers, I would go to the sessions in order to find new ideas for programming at our aquarium.
Now as a researcher, I don’t feel the same need to attend sessions because I don’t have an outlet for using the materials any more. (Either way, it would have been difficult to go to any sessions even if we wanted to as we had three sessions in one day.) I like that we are able to offer teachers new resources for their classroom to help them teach concepts related to our research. For example, we shared resources based on our research with middle school students and their understanding of size and scale. You can check out some of those resources here.
Last year brought a new perspective on conferences. At practitioner conferences, especially NMEA, the attendees are very laid back and tend to wear clothing related to their work. This hat was won at the MidAtlantic Marine Educators Association conference:
On the other hand, I’ve found the research conferences to be a little more formal, even ones in my field such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For example, I have an awesome pair of octopus leggings that I almost wore to the conference in September which would have been totally appropriate at NMEA. I am so glad I didn’t as everyone was in suits and jackets. Although it would have been very memorable.
So what’s the difference between practitioner and research conferences?
Practitioner conferences, like NSTA and NMEA, bring together people from all levels of experience within a field. You can find everyone from student teachers to educational researchers at these conferences. I find they also tend to be more hands on and about how to put new ideas into play in the classroom or other settings.
Research conferences tend to be more geared towards academics and other researchers. Here, the attendees gather to talk about their field, what research is being done, what needs to be done, and look for connections with other fields. This type of conference has more technical talks than hands on sessions.
Which is the best type of conference?
It depends on what your goal is.
Practitioner conferences are wonderful for turning your research into practice. As I mentioned, we took our work on size and scale and offered a session for teachers to help them learn to use it in their classrooms. This is a great way to increase your service, outreach, or meet your Broader Impacts goal for NSF.
These conferences are also helpful for talking with practitioners and staying in touch with the changes in your field. These attendees are on the ground floor where you hope your research will make a difference. By taking the time to network with these professionals, you can stay in touch with the needs of your field. It is a great way to develop new research ideas.
Research conferences are also great for networking and developing research ideas. By listening to the work that is currently happening in your field, you can develop new ideas and potentially research collaborations. You may also find researchers doing work in an area you are particularly passionate about. This may lead to new job opportunities. Last year I was most excited to meet the experts in my field of informal science education. I may have fan-girled a little when I met Dr. John Falk and Dr. Lynn Dierking. After reading their work for so long it was amazing to speak with them.
So I’m looking forward to our research conferences next week. We have two in a row in San Antonio, NARST and AERA. I’m excited to be giving my first paper talk at NARST and a round table session at AERA on my work with informal science educators. After years of presenting at practitioner conferences, I can’t wait to experience the other side.
Have you presented at a research conference versus a practitioner conference? How did you prepare differently for the two? Do you find one easier than the other? What are your tips and tricks?
Until next time,