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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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21st-Century Projects Inspire Global Citizenship Plus Creativity

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Reforestation plan that was researched in a New York classroom led to 999 trees planted in Cormier, Haiti.

This is the second in a special Edutopia blog series about developing 21st century skills through project-based learning. In the first post, "Yes, You Can Teach and Assess Creativity!", blogger Andrew Miller offered classroom strategies to encourage creative thinking. This post takes a look at a real-world project that has inspired students to think more creatively about their role as global citizens.

When Tech Valley High School opened its doors in 2007 in Rensselaer, New York, it offered students from across the state's Capital Region a chance to experience a different kind of public education. The building blocks of 21st century learning include wall-to-wall project-based learning, an emphasis on innovation and STEM, technology integration, and strong ties to the world beyond the classroom.

Those components recently came together in a project that took Tech Valley students to a rural village in Haiti, where they learned firsthand what it means to be creative -- and caring -- 21st century citizens.

The Backstory

Science teacher Leah Penniman regularly looks for opportunities to connect what her students are learning with real-world problems that they won't find in textbooks. Because Penniman often teams up with a social studies teacher, it's natural for them to design interdisciplinary projects that incorporate global issues.

For several years, Penniman's ninth-graders have been tackling engineering and environmental science projects that involve Haiti, where the teacher has family ties. Penniman's grandfather came to the U.S. as part of a diaspora of Haitian intellectuals in the last century.

Initially, Tech Valley students worked on difficult challenges from the comfort of their New York campus. One year, they improved on the design of solar ovens and submitted their engineering plans to a nonprofit organization that works in Haiti. Another year, they designed a composting system to solve the dual problems of improving soil fertility and disposing of waste in rural villages. Penniman went to Haiti herself that year to help put the plan into action. She updated her students from the field via Skype "so they could see their work being implemented. They started to get a sense of being citizens of the world."

Before she left Haiti, Penniman was approached by farmers in the village of Cormier, near the epicenter of the devastating 2010 earthquake. They asked, "And what will we do next year?" The farmers told her they wanted to reforest hillsides that were badly eroded and subject to mudslides. Could she and her students help with that? "I told them, I'll find a way," Penniman recalls.

A Project Takes Shape

All ninth-graders at Tech Valley take an interdisciplinary, two-period class called Environmental Analysis. On the social studies side, they study geography. For science, students undertake what Penniman calls "a comprehensive introductory science course-biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science, all through the lens of sustainability."

It was fitting, then, that ninth-graders took the lead on developing a comprehensive reforestation plan for the village of Cormier. As part of their science studies, they researched appropriate tree species and developed plans for "spacing, intercropping, fertility, erosion management -- everything," Penniman says.

Meanwhile, for social studies, the same students developed a cultural training program to prepare their classmates who would be making the week-long journey to Haiti to put the reforestation plan into action. Delegates had to apply for a spot on the travel team, committing to help with fundraising and to undertake language and culture studies. As it turned out, most of the eight delegates were seniors. In a nifty role-reversal, that meant they were prepped for the trip by freshmen.

Because of logistics and travel costs, Penniman explains, "I knew only a handful of students would be able to make the journey. But I wanted to involve as much of the school as possible." Students from across campus pitched in on adopt-a-tree campaigns, made chocolates to sell for Valentine's Day, solicited corporate sponsors, and contributed to other efforts that raised more than $13,000.

Thinking on Their Feet

In the classroom, Penniman routinely emphasizes creativity and problem solving as integral to science and engineering. One surefire teaching strategy to foster creativity, she says, "is to set up circumstances that demand flexible thinking." That means asking students open-ended questions that have many right answers (such as: How might we reforest a damaged ecosystem? Or: How might we improve on the design of a solar oven?)

She also fosters a fail-safe atmosphere to encourage risk taking. Students have multiple opportunities to test and refine their solutions. They learn to sketch out rough ideas and build prototypes to develop the most promising plans. They also get plenty of feedback and ungraded formative assessment during the research-and-design phase of projects.

Students who made the trek to Haiti had their flexibility tested in ways they didn't anticipate. "We thought we had every day mapped out," the teacher says, "and then we would encounter a complex web of cultural interactions, logistical challenges, weather, changing schedules. They had to think freshly every day!"

For instance, students planned to get an early start each morning to reach their ambitious goal of planting 999 trees. They didn't anticipate what the site coordinator in Cormier told them: "You can't plant until after 3 p.m. or the trees will wilt from the heat." Students did a quick assessment and came up with an alternate plan. It turns out that a grassy plant called vertiver is ideal for restoring washed-out gullies. It's heat tolerant and can be planted under daytime sun. So, students quickly got good at planting vertiver. By shifting schedules and learning to work efficiently, they also met their tree-planting goal. "They really found their groove," Penniman says. "We had compost people, watering people, people who counted the trees. By day four, they worked almost without talking."

Walking with Humility

Tech Valley students kept a blog during their journey to update friends and family back home. They chronicled a few of the eye-opening moments that were too numerous to count -- watching a full moon rise over a mountaintop, hearing a sermon in Creole, dancing and drumming, paying respects to those who lost their lives in the earthquake. (Read their posts here.)

One powerful learning experience unfolded when Tech Valley students were paired with an "age mate" from the school in Cormier. Pairs walked together to the Haitian student's home to plant a friendship tree. "They were gone for hours," Penniman says. Some had to cross rivers or climb mountain trails to reach the native student's home. American students were amazed to learn that this was a daily routine for their peers in Haiti. "They just kept saying, 'We really take what we have for granted.'"

To prepare for the trip, Tech Valley students learned to sing the Haitian national anthem -- in Creole. "That made a big difference," Penniman says, when students met community groups for the first time. "It showed that we were ready to learn from the community." Penniman took pride in watching her students "walk with humility" as they went about their work, which became a true partnership with the people of Cormier. Already, the Haitian community is considering which project they might tackle together with Tech Valley students next year.

It may take years to know how the American students have been affected by their 21st century learning experience. Will they grow up to be more creative, resourceful problem solvers? More concerned about issues that affect people in places far from their home? "I expect they will think more about the impact of their actions," Penniman predicts. "How will the choices they make in the future affect not just themselves or their immediate community, but the rest of the world? I have reason to be hopeful about that."

This blog is part of a series sponsored by Autodesk.
Project-Based Learning and Creativity

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