Initial Publication Date: November 7, 2019

History of On the Cutting Edge workshop philosophy, design, and implementation

From the outset, workshops were at the heart of On the Cutting Edge. Whether face-to-face, virtual, or hybrid, workshops engaged participants in topics and approaches to improve their own teaching, developed web resource collections for an audience far beyond those who attended a workshop, and built a community of faculty who incorporate effective teaching practices and help improve undergraduate geoscience education over all.

Workshop design was critical to achieving these aims. First and foremost, workshops were framed around goals for participants that focused on having participants make progress toward applying what they learned in the workshop to improve teaching and student learning in their own courses.

The five signature design strategies of On the Cutting Edge workshops

Below, we have listed the five signature design strategies of On the Cutting Edge workshops that have helped us achieve the aims outlined above. We include a brief commentary for each on how and why we evolved these strategies.

1. Workshops model effective pedagogy based on research on learning

We felt very strongly that our workshop model should be based on cognitive science research on how people learn. From the beginning, Cutting Edge workshops were founded on the idea that workshop participants learn just like all people learn, i.e., not when they are talked at but, rather, when they are actively engaged in building new knowledge and have opportunities to apply what they have learned to new situations and new problems. We felt it was critically important, therefore, to model good pedagogy in how we ran individual sessions, as well as in the overall design of workshops by framing workshops around goals for the participants and designing workshop sessions so that participants achieved those goals.

We designed workshop sessions to use a variety of research-based pedagogical strategies to actively engage workshop participants effectively. Not only did we firmly believe that our participants would learn more, but our overall goal was to improve student learning by changing how faculty teach. Using research-based best practice for sessions at workshops not only made sense for giving participants personal experience with teaching techniques involving active learning, but it was also the only honest and credible way to run our workshops.

Small group work and discussion was a common element in all of our face-to-face workshops, and translating that successfully to an online environment was one of the achievements of the later phases of On the Cutting Edge. For a typical synchronous virtual workshop, we set up a number of different call-in lines for small groups so that participants could talk with one another. Groups kept track of ideas emerging from their discussion on pages created using the Cutting Edge content management system that were accessible to workshop participants and leaders but that were not public live pages.

2. Participants always leave with something they can use immediately

Despite the fact that participants can be actively engaged and excited in the context of a workshop itself, it is frightfully easy for people to lose steam when they return home and are faced with the normal pressures of their academic lives. We felt that having participants go home with something they could use immediately without additional development time might help avoid typical post-workshop melt. This could be as simple as a new, easy-to-implement strategy for more actively engaging students in a classroom (e.g., trying a think-pair-share), a simple idea for managing your time (e.g., graceful strategies for being available, but not too available, for students), a specific teaching activity or resource that could be used immediately, a new way to frame questions on homework prep, etc. In short, we felt that, if participants were able to implement something immediately, without additional preparation, they would be more likely to continue to use what they learned in the workshop to improve their teaching.

3. Individual planning for implementation is an important workshop outcome for participants

We felt strongly that, for participants to make changes over time in their teaching, they needed planning time at the workshop so that they didn't leave a workshop with just a set of good ideas. In addition to making sure that participants went home with something to use immediately, we built specific time into each workshop for individual reflection, development, feedback, and planning to help people make enough progress to get over the hump to actual implementation after returning home. We accomplished this in a number of different ways. Informal poster sessions on the last day of many of our workshops required participants to present an outline of something that they had begun to develop at the workshop, present it to others at the workshop, and get feedback from leaders and other participants. Providing feedback to other participants also served as a catalyst for improving what each person had begun to develop.

In the later phases of the project, we developed a successful way of having virtual poster sessions where participants could read and provide feedback on ideas presented in posters by other participants. Each participant had a web page that was accessible only to participants and workshop leaders. The Cutting Edge content management system allowed each person to easily enter text and graphics to create an online poster. Each poster had a comments box at the bottom, where the leaders and other participants offered feedback on the ideas in the poster. We learned that online poster sessions actually produced more feedback (and a better permanent record) than typically happened in the poster sessions at face-to-face workshops.

Workshops also provided individual work time for participants to develop a plan for what they would do after the workshop (time lines, resources needed, etc.). Many workshops provided informal reviews of the activities that participants submitted ahead of the workshop and provided time for participants to work on how they would revise and improve activities. Many workshops also provided immediate individual reflection time after a catalyst presentation or mini-workshop for participants to reflect on how to implement the idea in their own classrooms.

4. Participants contribute valuable experience and ideas to the workshop and help build web collection

From the beginning, we knew that our workshops would bring together bright, creative participants who would have a great deal to offer in the context of the workshop. We designed workshops as a shared enterprise, rather than as an opportunity for participants to listen to a series of experts. We viewed the role of conveners and leaders as facilitators for a workshop, rather than as a group of presenters for a workshop.

Structured mechanisms for having participants share experiences and expertise were an integral part of every workshop. The range of opportunities varied from workshop to workshop. Most workshops incorporated a variety of types of discussions to which participants brought their expertise and experience, and the outcomes of many of those discussions were added to the web resources for the workshop and linked to the program page. Most workshops also had sessions where participants offered feedback and advice to other participants (e.g., about a submitted activity, a research proposal summary, a work plan for the future, etc.). Many workshops provided opportunities for participants to give short presentations, mini-workshops or posters (e.g., "Great strategies" sessions and "Share fairs" that show-cased what participants were doing in their own classes), and PowerPoints, handouts, and posters were added to the web resource collection and linked from the workshop program page. Emerging Themes workshops drew panelists from the among the workshop participants. In short, although workshops did have plenary sessions, participant expertise was a critical part of Cutting Edge workshops.

With the exception of the workshops for early career faculty and for graduate students and post-docs, all workshops required participants to submit something to the growing online Cutting Edge collections. We learned early on that we needed to require submission prior to the start of the workshop, as a "ticket" for being able to participate, because many participants did not follow through on post-workshop submissions. Required contributions ranged from an assignment or activity to an essay, a course description and syllabus, etc. These submissions were added to the browsable and searchable Cutting Edge collection of assignments and activities and were reviewed during the third phase of the program.

We also utilized participant expertise for expert reviews of participant-submitted activities. Details of the review process appear in another section of this history, and review of relevant portions of the collection were an integral part of workshops in the last few years of On the Cutting Edge. Not only did this produce a reviewed collection, but, by critiquing materials submitted by others, participants gained a new perspective on what constitutes an effective assignment/activity that they could use in designing or re-designing assignments and activities for their own courses.

In summary, then, we built the web resources in part by having participants contribute materials prior to a workshop – these are now part of the reviewed collection and searchable either from the web pages of On the Cutting Edge or from the Teach the Earth portal. We also added to web resources by building web pages from various discussions and activities at workshops and by uploading presentations and handouts to workshop program pages. These resources are critical for extending the reach of both the workshop itself and participant expertise at the workshop to those who did not attend.

Our aim was to build a collection by the community for the community. We did not want to build a be-all, end-all, one-size-fits-all course or curriculum. What we wanted was a set of resources with pieces from all parts of the community that could be adopted or adapted or simply serve as catalysts that faculty could shape to fit their own needs and their own students.

5. Networking and community-building is a specific component of workshops

In the early 1990s, an individual who wanted to do more student-centered teaching was not likely to have had much interaction with other geoscience faculty who were interested in the same thing. By the time that On the Cutting Edge began, a small community of practice had begun to form as a result of growth in the number of workshops, professional meeting sessions, and other activities, and one of the aims of On the Cutting Edge was to build this into a large community of practice that that could have a far-reaching impact on how undergraduate geoscience was taught.

We felt that networking during a workshop could help build a community of practice, and we incorporated specific networking activities into every workshop. Instead of just getting to know the workshop leaders and what they do, participants got to know one another through many specifically designed opportunities ranging from icebreakers to great ideas sessions to discussions and mini-workshops. Emerging themes workshops also required participants to write an essay and post it prior to workshop, and participants were asked to read these before the workshop as a way of getting to know one another before the workshop started. Workshop evaluations consistently showed that networking was highly valued as an important outcome of Cutting Edge workshops.

We also used workshops to build and strengthen networks between the geoscience community and other communities and to bring participants together who might never otherwise have encountered one another. Some of our workshops (e.g., emerging themes in the affective domain, metacognition, biocomplexity, public policy) had large numbers of participants from outside the geosciences. Other workshops were dominated by participants from the geosciences but brought in non-geoscientists for participants to interact with and learn from (e.g., the Teaching Structural Geology workshop brought in a cognitive psychologist with expertise in 3-D visualization). All of these approaches gave participants personal experience in the value that diverse communities bring to addressing a problem.

More information on both the philosophy above and on specifically how we implemented these strategies in On the Cutting Edge workshops:

  • On the Cutting Edge web pages on planning, designing, and convening a workshop
  • A pdf with a full description of Cutting Edge workshop strategies and implementation in face-to-face workshops. Note: this will be the workshop paper with some edits based on your comments from years ago.

Designing a program that motivated people to come

Over the life of Cutting Edge, the number of applications to participate commonly exceeded the number of spaces available in a workshop. What did we do to motivate so many people to want to come to our workshops?

Disciplinary focus. The number of faculty in the geosciences is small in comparison to the number in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and math. Workshops that involve faculty from across the STEM disciplines commonly provided few opportunities for geoscience faculty to interact with one another, simply because of the disparity in numbers. By contrast, On the Cutting Edge provided opportunities where geoscience faculty knew that they would be able to interact with many other geoscientists (over 100 in our largest workshops). And, in many of our workshops, participants knew that they would have a critical mass of participants with similar specialties or interests (e.g,, hydrogeology, or urban geology) with whom to interact.

Variety. We didn't focus on one type of workshop or a limited range of topics, audiences, and venues. In any given year, we offered opportunities for multi-day workshops on an emerging theme geoscience topic (e.g., biocomplexity), an emerging theme pedagogical topic (e.g., the affective domain), a specific course (e.g., hydrogeology), and course design in general. We also offered at least one career development workshop every year targeted at people in a specific stage of their careers (e.g., the Early Career Faculty Workshop and the workshop for grad students and post-docs on Preparing for an Academic Career). In addition, we offered shorter workshops at professional meetings and, later in the project, online.

Our program was intentionally inclusive. We accomplished this by offering workshops on a wide range of topics with different lengths, venues, and formats, meaning that we could meet the needs of a wide variety of people. We also worked hard to reach people where they were by moving workshops around the country, by hosting workshops at a range of institution types from R1 universities to 2YCs, by offering workshops at regional and national professional meetings (e.g., GSA and AGU) and at specialty meetings (e.g., AMQUA), and by offering a variety of virtual opportunities for faculty whose time and/or financial resources limited their participation in face-to-face workshops. Although people came for different reasons to different kinds of workshops, the variety was not a scattershot approach. On the Cutting Edge was a program with consistent goal sand strategies to achieve those goals, and participants left whatever workshop they attended better prepared to teach geoscience more effectively.

Focus on adaptation, rather than adoption. From the beginning, we deliberately followed a different path from that taken by curriculum development efforts in chemistry and physics. Rather than developing and promoting a specific curriculum, we focused on helping faculty develop approaches for their own courses that were consistent with research on learning and with pedagogical best practice. Adapting ideas, approaches, and materials to their own departments, students, personal expertise, and personality/style resonated with participants.

Consistent structure, design philosophy, and resource development. Our evaluations showed that the workshop design philosophy and structure developed by On the Cutting Edge was rated highly by participants. Because design philosophy and structures were consistent across workshops (and, in part, because we had a memorable program name), we had a brand that not only made many people come back for a second or third workshop but also developed a strong word-of-mouth reputation. In addition, the web resources that were developed for each workshop fed back into the program as a whole, rather than simply back into the next iteration of a particular workshop. The Cutting Edge brand encompassed not only the workshops but also the online collection, which became widely recognized and valued not only for the quality of the resources initially developed for individual workshops but also because resources were integrated across topics over the entire site. The web site had very wide reach and served to draw additional new people to workshops.

Clear value added. Participants knew that the workshops would be focused on practical application of ideas and that they would go home from the workshop with usable materials and plans for development, along with a new set of web and human resources on which to draw.

The future for Cutting Edge-style workshops

In 2013, expiration of our third and final NSF grant was approaching in 2015, and we negotiated a transition of responsibility for the Cutting Edge Project to NAGT under the condition that future workshops would adopt the philosophy and five signature design strategies of On the Cutting Edge workshops. The MOU was signed and adopted in January of 2013, and four Cutting Edge PIs served on the NAGT Professional Development Committee as part of the transition until 2019. Since 2013, workshops developed by NAGT have used these design principles, insuring that the highly successful Cutting Edge workshop model will continue to benefit participants in the future. In the spring of 2019, NAGT adopted the name On the Cutting Edge for professional development workshops offered now and in the future by NAGT.

Learn more about the On the Cutting Edge Workshop Design Process »