What Works in Workshops – 2021 Conference Announcement

LifeSciTrainers is a community founded on the idea that we can accelerate progress in the life sciences by improving how we build and share skills long after the completion of a degree (see our vision and mission statement ). The community was also a reaction to evidence (e.g Feldon 2017 ) that although millions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent training life scientists, much of it is not doing enough to help researchers and educators keep up with the accelerating pace of change.

I am delighted therefore to announce that a conference proposal submitted to the US National Science Foundation has been funded to bring together a small but diverse group of experts and leaders with the purpose of making progress in professional development and training in the life sciences. This award is an extension of the NSF2026 project (see NSF announcement) and outputs from this conference may have the potential to further shape the NSF agenda.

What Works in Workshops” will be a starting point for conversation on challenges and opportunities in this area and a foundation-building exercise for collaborations that can lead to change. This 2.5 day conference will be held in-person (circumstances permitting) in late 2021 at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Banbury Center in New York, an institution recognized internationally for meetings which are amongst the world’s best discussion workshops for topics in molecular biology, molecular genetics, human genetics, neuroscience and science policy. Travel and all related expenses will be covered for accepted attendees from anywhere in the world. A virtual attendance option will also help us further increase conference diversity. See the detailed summary and draft discussion topics below.

How to participate and who should think about attending

We hope to cast a very wide net for attendees from diverse perspectives. In addition to requiring global input, attendees from educational psychology, implementation science, economics, industry, as well as funders and policy makers – anyone who has the potential to drive new ideas in this area – are potential participants.

A more detailed one-page summary is below. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing more details on the application and selection process. To promote discussion only 20-30 attendees will be accepted for the in-person event. We will also have specific mechanisms for contributions from community members and experts beyond the conference itself. In the meantime, I am happy to have conversations with anyone who has questions (Williams at cshl.edu), please also feel free to leave comments on the post. This post will hopefully start some buzz and allow time to identify applicants, particularly those who have much to add to this discussion but who have not been included before.


Detailed Summary and Draft Discussion Areas

These proposed topic areas give an idea of subjects likely to be discussed at the conference. The list will ultimately be shaped by attendees. Note: we define short-format training (SFT) as workshops, bootcamps, winter/summer courses, or other forms of training that are not part of a typical semester-long class.

Successful Training at Scale

  • How do we define success (and failure) in SFT?
  • Are there differences between SFT programs in and outside of academia?
  • Are differences between SFT programs for instructors (train the trainer) and users (researchers) important; do they impact the long-term effects/impact?
  • How can/do successful SFT programs meet career-spanning learning needs?

Research Gaps

  • How can we assess the long-term impacts of individual SFT events/programs?
  • How can we prepare learners to assess the impacts of individual SFT events for their own workforce/professional development objectives?
  • Is there a pragmatic path to scaling advanced/specialized training?
  • How can SFT be best scaffolded within the career-spanning learning landscape?

Incentivizing and Enabling Training

  • How can career-spanning learning be supported across professional contexts?
  • What is the role of funders, institutions, and professional societies in fostering communities of practice that promote and support career-spanning learning?
  • How can short format training be a force for equity and inclusion in STEM?
  • What e-infrastructure is needed to support this effort?

Culture Change

  • How can a community of practice be effective in promoting career-spanning learning?
  • How can we create scale-independent culture change across scientific communities and disciplines?
  • How can we encourage adoption of evidence-based practices for teaching and learning across disciplinary, institutional, and geographic borders?
  • How can the established findings of educational research be leveraged to support culture change, and mitigate resistance and other obstacles?

Summary

Elaborating on the NSF 2026 Idea Machine Reinventing Scientific Talent idea, we propose a conference to explore how short-format training (SFT), e.g. workshops, bootcamps, etc. can more effectively support career-spanning learning for researchers, educators, and other STEM professionals (STEM workforce). The proposed conference will assemble leaders from exemplar national-scale training programs, experts in education and adult learning, policy makers, and other stakeholders for “think-tank” style discussion. The proposed conference will approach problems described in the Reinventing Scientific Talent idea using the life sciences as a case study to explore 1) how SFT can be improved to serve career-spanning learning needs of the life science STEM workforce; and 2) how global SFT efforts that promote career-spanning training, including “workforce development”, can be leveraged. The conference will aim to develop pragmatic consensus recommendations as well as prioritized questions for future hypothesis-driven research. Starting from accepted educational research and the shared experience of the largest global programs for SFT, we have identified topics to stimulate broad community discussion in the life sciences and beyond. An Organizing Committee will further refine this list. To further the reach of the conference, a collaboratively developed white paper on these topics will be released as a living document for community development and dissemination. In this way, this conference has the potential to develop the first set of global consensus principles for SFT that serve career-spanning learning needs, relevant to life science and beyond. Participants (and the thousands of researchers and educators they serve globally) will also be strongly positioned to benefit from the resulting set of refined questions and hypotheses through further testing and development.

Intellectual Merit:

Efforts to improve K-16 STEM education have not yet been matched by a similarly scaled effort to develop career-spanning learning and community of practice for the STEM workforce. In the life sciences, many in the STEM workforce struggle to incorporate computation, data science, and other skills not included in their formal preparation. Evidence suggests we are not doing enough to meet the needs of our skilled workforce. Training in various forms of computational skills and data integration tasks are the most unmet needs of NSF BIO-funded researchers (1) and less than a third of educators bring these skills to the classroom (with the most recently graduated educators being least likely to do so) (2). Although NSF and other agencies spend millions of dollars funding SFT, evidence (3) also suggests much of it may not have the intended effect. This conference will explore missed opportunities and challenges in applying established principles from education research, identify research gaps, define training successes and failures, and explore incentives/disincentives and mechanisms to incite culture change that supports career-spanning learning.

Broader Impacts:

As described in the Reinventing Scientific Talent idea, members of the STEM workforce who cannot meet their career-spanning learning needs risk encountering artificial bottlenecks when they are unable to apply methods they have not been trained in but need to use. Educators risk being unable to provide students with up-to-date, job-ready skills. STEM professionals from underrepresented groups may suffer additional disparities when training is unavailable to them. This conference will address these issues by focusing on how training can be improved, evaluated, and scaled to better serve the needs of all researchers, with a strong focus on reaching the underserved.

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