Training Hosts at the Canadian Space Agency

This morning at breakfast at the Elevate 2008 conference, I chatted with Marilyn Steinberg from the Canadian Space Agency. I commented that I heard their programs fill up quickly, so she described how they focus on quality, particularly how they train their “hosts” – the scientists and engineers who videoconference with the students. Her training program isn’t published or researched, however, Alberta Education is conducting a three year research project on their student programs.

I learned some really interesting things from Marilyn as she described their training program for their experts. Sometimes the best learning is in the conversations at a conference!

Components of the training

  • An annual 7 month training that consists of 2-4 hours a month
  • Three levels of training – beginning, intermediate, and advanced
  • Beginning focuses on room presence when presenting face to face
  • Intermediate and advanced include speaking the same curriculum language as students and teachers, body language in a videoconference, initiating a warm connection in the first 2.5 minutes of the connection, etc.
  • Pairing beginning and advanced presenters in the first face to face workshops at the Space Agency so the beginners aren’t alone

Lessons for communication
Marilyn shared some really important communication points for videoconferencing. I asked her how she learned them, and she said by observing. They’ve been doing videoconferences for quite a long time. So here are a few of her tips.

  • An early tip for their experts is how to engage with students and teachers who come to sessions on-site at the Canadian Space Agency. The experts learn not to turn their back to the audience – “only your spouse should admire your backside” – a humorous way to remember the lesson! Moving around instead of staying in one place to present requires the audience to multi-task and follow you.
  • Don’t point to the kid on the front row. Pointing is very aggressive. Instead, call on the student in the first row with a green shirt – with an inviting smile on your face and your eyebrows raised. The student will respond with a smile and you’ve engaged them and made a human connection.
  • Don’t break eye contact with the audience. She talked about how when you’re thinking, you might look down or up to the left. But this just makes you look really scary and shifty in a videoconference. Their presenters practice in the mirror and with each other in preparation for looking at the audience and not breaking eye contact. She described the results of this training in a session where the students are working in the room under the supervision of the remote host/scientist – and students just approach the microphone to ask questions of the scientist. Clearly the scientist is “in the room” in the students’ minds.

The scientists improve so much in their presentation skills that they come back from their conferences and comment on the poor quality of presentations done at their scientific conferences. They’ve learned so much they’ve become critical consumers of presentations.

Curriculum Connections
The other part of her training program is in depth learning about the curriculum requirements of the schools. The scientists and engineers learn how to use the same language that the students are using in their scientific curriculum. This is so critical! How many poor expert presentations have you seen? Marilyn commented that they are “talking to themselves”, which I thought was pretty funny because it’s so true!

A really brave (in my opinion) component of their training is annual assessment. This isn’t just a three year training where you just walk through the workshops and then you’re done. Each year they assess the experts to see what training they need to focus on for that year. The training is tailored to their needs. She didn’t describe how they did the assessment, but this seemed really brave to me. How many guest experts would be willing to go through this? Yet, clearly they are able to get past the initial hesitancy of their engineers and scientists to the point where they value and appreciate the training. They come back and say this interaction with the kids is their favorite part of their job because of the positive feedback they receive.

I look forward to future publications and presentations of the great work that the Canadian Space Agency is doing!

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