Which math problem sounds like something eighth grade algebra students would find engaging: Graphing how many bunnies farmer John had on his bunny farm over 10 years or analyzing body image by age and gender?
The second one, right?
Yep. Algebra teacher Sara Jenson thought so, too.
In addition to being more engaging to the student, the second math problem was chosen by a student, allowing the 13-year-old dancer to investigate a subject she was already interested in.
Instead of using a traditional graphing calculator, the student used one found online, Desmos, to demonstrate her findings, which she shared with her school and community at a culminating project fair.
All these elements together create a project that engaged the student in several ISTE Standards for Students, including Empowered Learner, Digital Citizen, Knowledge Constructor and Creative Communicator. The element of the assignment that elevated it above others? Relevance.
Jenson, who teaches at Spencer Butte Middle School in Eugene, Oregon, asked her students to use statistical analysis to describe the association of two quantitative variables related to an idea of social justice or relevant to the community. Other student projects included analyzing nutritional values of food versus the cost, the number of terrorist attacks by white Americans versus the number by foreign-born Muslims and high school graduation rates in different parts of town.
“Social justice is a topic that the students are not always comfortable with, but they are ready to have thoughtful, sometimes challenging conversations about,” says Jenson.
A 2016 Student Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of students in grades 5-12 aspire to create something that makes the world a better place.
Middle school science and math teacher Rebecca Newburn integrates socially relevant projects into as many units as possible. Her students at Hall Middle School in Richmond, California, start by creating a public service announcement (PSA) or seed saving tutorial for the national One Million Seed Savers campaign. Students learn content about the science of seeds and then present it in a professional way using digital tools, such as Adobe Spark, Canva and Piktochart. The PSA, “Small Seed, Big Future,” was a success and featured on the campaign’s website.
The project led to the creation of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, where community members “borrow” seeds and learn about gardening and seed saving.
“Our students actually do seed saving through the school garden, and they translate that into their own personal lives,” says Newburn. “That’s a transgenerational change that can have positive impacts for years to come. That’s the kind of ambitiousness we need to have when we look at the next generation science standards. How do we support a truly sustainable and regenerative culture?”
Her students also participate in a zero-waste challenge that asks students to monitor their waste for a month and create a PSA about what they learned, and a climate change project where each student creates a digital presentation on a human community in a region of the world affected by climate change.
The culmination of the project is to pick a local task that can make a difference. One group made food waste videos for Zero Waste Marin. Another helped improve the recycling program at the school’s lunch program. Yet another group put in a sea-level viewer camera in three places that tagged the photos with the date and time to monitor changes over time.
Projects such as Newburn’s get to the heart of what it means to be a Knowledge Constructor and a Creative Communicator, two of the ISTE Standards for Students. “With projects like these, students often have to learn how to communicate in a professional way, using any number of tech tools or platforms,” says Boss. “They have to create something and get it out to the world through some sort of technology with a compelling pitch or video. They have to learn which tools are essential, not just flashy and fun. It’s about knowing how to use technology for an authentic purpose, using tech in a purposeful way.”
Sometimes, the most meaningful problems are right in our own communities. In 2013, Massachusett’s Brookwood Middle School teacher Rich Lehrer asked his students to solve a very personal problem, creating a prosthetic hand for his son, Max.
Max, who was 3 at the time, was born with a condition that inhibited the growth of fingers on his right hand. Lehrer saw some YouTube videos about prosthetics and wondered if he could build something like that for Max. On second thought, maybe his students could build it?
Lehrer founded the Robohand after-school club and, with help from a renowned hand surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital and the use of a 3D printer at a nearby high school, the students had a working hand by the end of the school year.
Since then, a 3D printer has been donated to Brookwood and the journey has taken on a life of its own. Lehrer’s students use a the 3D printer to solve school and community problems submitted through Brookwood’s 3D Design Problem Bank Project.
An elective course, D-Zign Girlz, sends students out into the community to places like Harborlight Community Residences where they design assistive devices for residents.
Eighth grader Addie Loughery, who was in sixth grade at the time, solved a common problem for the elderly residents of Harborlight. Many of them have shaky hands and spill coffee while drinking out of styrofoam cups. Loughery designed a “Noffee,” a shield that fits around the cup and prevents the coffee from spilling on the resident, causing burns.
It took a lot of measuring and several tries to get the Noffee just right, but Addie says the project was worth the extra effort. “It actually made a difference for other people,” she says. “This wasn’t just about me learning. It was about helping other people who needed it.”
Lehrer says the problem-solving nature of real-world projects makes them more valuable for the students. They’re not just trying to get an answer right on a piece of paper, they’re getting real-time feedback and having to make appropriate adjustments.
“It’s incumbent upon you to refine the solution and implement it,” he says. “We are training kids in problem-solving using an iterative cycle. Make a first stab, but go through the design cycle with a prototype, revamp and try again.”
Sounds a lot like what it means to be an Innovative Designer and a Computational Thinker.
Mike Gwaltney writes about project-based learning and is head of Upper School at Rocky Hill School in Rhode Island. Before moving to Rhode Island, Gwaltney was at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, where homelessness is a problem students see every day. His students wanted to address the issue, but he was concerned they would go down an unrealistic path and learn the wrong lesson ... that there are some problems we can’t fix or that individuals can’t do much.
Instead, he asked students if they could make a dent or change the situation for just one person. His students decided to build a tiny house and create the Homelessness Action Project by Portland Youth, a nonprofit that strives to help one or two people annually. The students find the funding and work with school leadership and partners in the community.
“Be bold,” says Gwaltney. “Kids will inspire teachers when they’re allowed to dream. Teach- ers will keep it realistic, but if there is 10 percent success, kids learn a tremendous amount and are inspired to try again.”
Expanding the classroom
Technology gives students new ways to communicate and allows them to create things we wouldn’t have dreamed of just 20 years ago. It also empowers students to become truly global citizens by looking at the world though a social justice lens.
“Tech allows us to connect those kids across time and space,” says Gwaltney. “Tech isn’t the driver, but it is the essential piece that allows us to do this global citizenship piece.”
Gwaltney shares the example of the Monu- ments Project that started this year when an American school in Paris partnered with students in Lopez Island Middle School in Washington state to tell the unknown stories of soldiers. The history students researched monuments in Paris commemorating Washington soldiers buried in the Suresnes American Cemetery in France.
Through digital communication, the project expanded quickly and was joined by students in New York, Illinois, West Virginia and Pennsyl- vania, all working together to tell the unknown stories of soldiers. While technology is sometimes accused of being damaging to empathy, in this case, it’s being leveraged to teach empathy.
Leigh Zeitz, Ph.D., an associate professor and instructional technology division coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa, says global connections should be a priority. “Helping our students become aware of the incredible world in which we live should be at the top of our list. We are preparing them for today’s world as well as to- morrow’s world, which is a global society. Teachers should not be afraid to engage in this journey.”
Bringing social justice to your classroom
Zeitz has some pointers for setting up projects in your own classroom. Make the project meaningful and simple, but remember, projects like these taketime. “With different cultures, different time zones and misunderstandings, you have to be ready to accept that something is going to go wrong. It’s good to have a Plan B and that can be part of the learning experience.”
Start with a problem or challenge that will connect with your students. For example, Jenson started several weeks ahead of time, talking with students about their interests, what they talk about with their families or their other classes, to help them identify what problem they wanted to graph. Empower students to drive their own learning by allowing lots of room for them to come up with their own ideas. Remember that you’re not looking for a room full of identical projects.
Rich Lehrer stresses that authenticity is im- portant. “The more authentic, the more motiva- tion there is for a high-quality product,” he says. “In school, the final products don’t really matter.
But when students are working with community partners and respect the relationship, kids have an innate desire to solve problems and have solutions work.”
To help with this process, Suzie Boss suggests framing the project with a driving question. Then, create a plan for the following days and weeks that helps students find answers to that question.
Now we’re into what Boss calls the “messy middle” of the project. She suggests guiding students through this part with lots of formative assessments. Do they understand the question or do they need to go deeper?
A common refrain is that adding a big proj- ect is too difficult with so many requirements to meet with few resources. Jenson simplified things by making the graphing project the summit evaluation of the unit, rather than a test. Newburn agrees. She says her students not only had a solid understanding of the science standards, they alsotook it to the next level to find solutions they can participate in.
When students are trying to solve a real problem, whether globally or within their own community, it’s an authentic, interactive, empathy- building experience.
“This is the most important work we can be doing as educators. Working for social justice is the point of public education in the U.S. We want to inform our society and want our democracy to work for everyone,” says Gwaltney. “Teachers can see across the curriculum that is the point of their science, math or literature class; kids can do things to make society better over time. It can change society and change the world.”
Jennifer Snelling is a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. As a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.