Challenge-Based Professional Development – Iron Chef at ISTE 2013

By Krista Moroder

professional development
Members of the ISTE Young Educator Network

Connect, collaborate, create. We hear these words over and over, and we are constantly telling educators that these are the skills their students need to succeed in their futures. However, how often do we, as teacher-trainers, provide professional development that resembles the lecture model that we are so desperately trying to eliminate?

After having conversations with other members of the ISTE Young Educator Network, a few of my colleagues and I decided that we wanted to experiment with a new type of session at the 2013 ISTE conference in San Antonio, Texas. We didn’t want to just preach about connectedness — we wanted our attendees to form teams and friendships. We didn’t want to just preach about collaboration — we wanted our attendees to work together towards a shared goal. We didn’t want to just preach about creation — we wanted our attendees to build an idea or product.

Our idea was to build a competition where attendees would tackle an education technology challenge together. Here was our process, some of our challenges and successes, and my ultimate takeaway from the event.


professional development
The event being promoted at the kickoff ceremony

Fifty-three adventurous attendees showed up on Monday morning, ready to take on the Iron Chef: ISTE13 Challenge. After explaining our plans, attendees chose one of four challenges that they were interested in taking on:

  1. Fusion Cuisine Challenge: Develop a project tied to a subject area standard and the NETS for Students.
  2. Fine Dining Challenge: You’re writing an application for a technology grant. Justify how you will use the funds.
  3. Thanksgiving Feast Challenge: You’re trying to roll out a technology initiative. Develop an implementation plan.
  4. Corporate Dinner Challenge: You’re developing a new app to help teachers solve a specific problem. Pitch your idea.
After choosing one of the four challenges, attendees divided into smaller groups and formed a total of eleven teams. They were then given four different ingredients, relevant to the challenge that they chose, with the instructions that they had to use those ingredients in the solution to their challenge.
For example, those that chose to do the Thanksgiving Feast Challenge (developing an implementation plan for a grant-funded technology initiative), ended up with ingredients from the following categories: funding ($ ranging from 2k to 100k), a grant topic (STEM, digital citizenship, etc), scope (one grade, one district, etc), and challenges (poor infrastructure, lack of shared vision, etc).
Live updates on Twitter throughout the event

The eleven teams (view them here) then immediately went to work on their solutions, with the expectation that they would give a four-minute presentation on Wednesday morning. The next 48 hours involved a flurry of Twitter activity and enough smack talk that Iron Chef made the “ISTE’s Top Ten Conversations” list. Most groups met for a few hours on Tuesday to finish putting together their presentations and videos.

On Wednesday morning, the groups showed up to present their solutions through a variety of videos, slideshows, and elaborate costumes. Guest judges were Jeffrey Bradbury – host of TeacherCast, Caroline Haebig – ISTE Outstanding Young Educator 2012, Ramsey Musallam – TED Talk speaker, and Wokka Patue, the head puppet journalist on the Techeducator Podcast. The final winners tied for first place were Team Tech Cruncheez and Team Naked Techs. A special “Good Sport” award went out to Team Show Me the Money.


Before I talk about the successes, I want to to talk about some of the improvements we’ll need to make if we do it again next year.


Communication and organization are two of the most important aspects of project-based learning. Participants need to know as many details about the process as possible so that they can focus, stress-free, on building the best products that they can. We ran into some struggles when not all of our team knew all of the details about the process. In the months leading up to the event, we held a few Google Hangouts- but not every facilitator could participate in each planning meeting, and we didn’t record the conversations. We probably should have met at least once in person before the actual workshop so that everyone went in with an understanding of what we needed to accomplish and when.

Logistical Details

There were a few things we forgot about- and most had to do with the second session (the presentations). The first thing we forgot was prizes. Yikes! Who wants to participate in a cool competition without any schwag? The second thing we forgot to do was find guest judges. Luckily, we had a few awesome educators volunteer last-minute, but we didn’t give them a ton of time or information to prepare for the final event.


Because this was our first time doing this event, we had no idea how many people would show up (if at all)- so we didn’t know how much time to plan for the event. We planned for an hour and a half for the initial meeting- and most groups ended up meeting between two to five hours on their off day (which we expected). The issue came with our presentations. We were allotted one hour for final presentations- but after some minor technical setup issues and a bigger showing of teams than we expected- we ended up running over our time by almost a half hour. As attendees of the next session swarmed into our room, we ended up having to eliminate the final team, Show Me the Money, from the competition because we simply ran out of time. We videotaped them immediately following the session, and put their efforts on the website we created (, but we still felt awful that they didn’t receive the same opportunity as everyone else.


Twitter conversations from the event

Despite the challenges, I think the workshop turned out pretty well overall. The participants were engaged, motivated, and created amazing solutions to the challenges. I remember being completely blown away by what some of the groups were able to come up with in such a short amount of time. Some groups brought in students to help with their four-minute pitch, while other groups created highly engaging introduction videos. A few groups even went so far as to dress in chef hats and bring props. I highly encourage everyone to check out their final projects on the website.

More important than the final products, however, were the conversations that occurred while creating those presentations. Each attendee brought personal experiences to each challenge, and I felt like I learned more from those workshopconversations than I did in many of the lecture-based professional development sessions I’ve attended in my career.

I also loved following the conversations on Twitter (#epicyen) and watching the spirited heckling and encouragement between all of the teams. The final moments of the event were filled with continuous statements of “keep in touch”, “can’t wait to work on our next project together”, and “let’s bring this back to our district”.


I learned so much from the attendees in this session- and that fact reinforced everything I’ve been taught about building a learner-driven environment. Learning is social. Learning is messy. Learning happens when people work together to take on challenges and find solutions. We preach this to our students, and we need it to start reflecting in the professional development we provide for our educators.

I plan on taking this back to my district, and I plan on taking the lessons I learned back as well. Yes, the timing could have gone better- but how often do teachers run into the same issues when students are presenting projects in class? The challenges we ran into were the same that many teachers run into while teaching- so OUR takeaway will be to share those experiences so that our teachers can learn from our mistakes. Inquiry-based learning is powerful- but it also feels like an incredible risk to teachers who have never given students that control before. The more we, as coaches, can model that learning and share our experiences, the better chance we will have of inspiring a teacher to stretch outside of his/her comfort zone and start to give ownership of learning to his/her students. In the words of attendee Mrs. Stading, a teacher from Alaska, “those who do, learn.”

You can read more about the Iron Chef: ISTE13 Challenge and/or download resources at The event was facilitated by members of the ISTE Young Educator Network- you can read more about them or get involved here.

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