Attending conferences might be the way of life for plenty of working professionals, but this week, junior high students from Crane Middle School and Wellton Elementary School had the chance to see what it’s like.

“As teachers, other professionals, we all go to professional development to keep your certificates or your licenses up to date,” said Crane Middle School teacher Liz Colton. “You go to polish up on your skills, you network with other people as adults. And I thought, ‘Why do they have to wait until they’re an adult to do that? Why not experience that, right now?’

“And so I thought about making a student conference. And then I really wanted it to be students inspiring other students, and so that connection between our school district of Crane School District and Wellton – I thought was really important. Because would we normally ever be together? No, we wouldn’t, but we need to go outside our school walls, right? We need to go outside of our community and start really connecting with other people.”

One grant from General Motors later – attained with the help of AWC Professor Samuel Colton – as well as with some extra help from Yuma ABEC, the Students Inspiring Students Mini Conference became reality on May 3 at the Arizona Western College Wellton Learning Center. This year’s topic was on the concept of a plastic circular economy, where plastic could be continually reused and recycled.

Everyone involved had a role: Liz Colton ran a breakout session on upcycling plastics and finding over 100 uses for odd items like leftover Easter eggs. Crane Middle School teachers Kaitlin McGill and Felicia Ebenfelt managed an activity on personalizing T-shirts and giving them new life. Professor Samuel Colton led a breakout session on the process of recycling plastics by having students participate in shredding plastic for new use. Behind the scenes, Wellton Elementary School teacher Bernard Dacanay, AWC Professor Bruce Carroll and Yuma ABEC Director of Strategic Partnerships Heidi Jones lent helping hands.

The students played important roles too. As part of Liz Colton’s idea for students to inspire students, students from both schools gave presentations. Some shared what they made with a 3D printer and recycled filaments. Others shared what they learned about plastics and pollution.

One student, Yarah Rodriguez, asked in her presentation why people dispose of plastics improperly, be it by throwing them on the ground or littering by the beaches: “Are they just lazy to throw it or are they just unaware of all the dangers?”

Having students present ideas and projects was an important component in engaging the students in the topic in Liz Colton’s view. And she noted that they were immersed in the conference experience in detailed ways too – from having to register for the conference through Google Forms and writing proposals for presentation to receiving a swag bag and participant lanyards.

“I really wanted it to be student driven,” she said. “So we want student choice and student voice the whole time. So they really chose what projects they wanted to do. They chose what games they wanted to design. They chose how they want to present it. ... some of them did poetry, some of them did art and then they did infographics and there was all different kinds of things that kids did – we didn’t even get to share all of it because there were so much produced by our students as well. And so if anything I learned through all this, we probably need a longer day because the kids really came through and they produced a ton of stuff.”

Wellton Elementary science teacher Bernard Dacanay observed that a good day out of school is a good day in school. The participating youth might have been outside of their usual campuses, but they engaged in the workshops and presentations, and they even came away from it with special certificates stating they underwent professional development.

“I’m just glad that Wellton Elementary School students got to collaborate and we’re excited for future iterations of the conference and collaborating more,” Dacanay said.

And in Colton and Carroll’s views, events like this conference are crucial for sparking interest for young people.

“Today, I was supposed to be off,” explained Carroll. “Theoretically on Tuesday, I don’t come in to teach ‘til afternoon, but Sam was telling me, ‘Hey, you need to come in and see what’s going on.’ And you know, it just draws you into it. The more you see the excitement of the students, the more you want to get involved with them. And that’s this thing, you know? Those are the people that are going to fill our our shortage of craftsmen. The more we can get them involved, the better off the whole nation is gonna be.”

And even the students could agree the day was a success. As Yarah Rodriguez explained it, “Today’s conference was epic!”

Sisko J. Stargazer can be reached at 928-539-6849 or sstargazer@yumasun.com.

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