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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Young Global Leaders Put Innovative Ideas into Action

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

On Earth Day 2013, teens with a passion for the environment gathered in Costa Rica with 500 peers from around the world. The Global Student Leaders Summit, organized by EF Educational Tours, featured such inspiring speakers as former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore and environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki.

That alone would have made a lasting impression, but it turns out the summit was the start of something bigger. Since April, participants have been applying what they learned about design thinking and collaborative problem solving. Not content to talk about the need for future change, they're stepping up to become innovators in their own communities.

I recently caught up with summit participants from Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Margaret Vos, now a senior, and sophomore Chris Zarba attended the event with three classmates and science teacher Charlotte Shire. They were one of three U.S. teams to come back from Costa Rica with seed funding -- and plenty of passion -- to launch a local action project.

Watch a video about the summit in Costa Rica:

The Adventure Begins

Although Shire has a background in experiential education, this was her first time chaperoning a study tour abroad. "It was a new adventure for me," she acknowledges, but she saw the potential for "a tremendous learning opportunity." She wasn't disappointed. The week-long travel experience alone was eye-opening, giving students a close-up look at fragile ecosystems and unfamiliar wildlife, along with hands-on learning experiences at Earth University and other sites.

"I remember walking along a bridge and seeing a bunch of monkeys. It was the first time I'd seen anything like that outside of a zoo," recalls Margaret. "That's a memory I'll keep." Since returning from Costa Rica, her college plans have shifted to focus on environmental science. Chris remembers "being kept awake by howler monkeys," along with being captivated by Gore's speech and enthralled by a one-on-one conversation he had with Cullis-Suzuki.

Watching her students interact with peers from other countries and cultures, Shire gained a deeper appreciation for global education. "There was a difference when students came home," she says. "Parents commented on it. They could see the confidence that comes from being able to interact with peers from other countries in a positive way. One girl, who's now in college, said this experience changed her life."

A Process for Problem-Solving

Goals for the annual Global Student Leaders Summit are deliberately ambitious, acknowledges Daniel Paccione, a veteran educator and director of global engagement for EF Educational Tours. "We want to build and encourage students' creativity, innovation, adaptability, and cultural understanding." That fits with the organization's mission of helping people become "citizens of the world" by breaking down barriers of language, culture, and geography.

At the April summit, students were organized into cross-cultural teams and immersed in a challenge to solve collaboratively -- and quickly. Within a couple hours, they were expected to produce prototypes to illustrate their creative solutions to issues such as:

  • Design a solution to reduce your school's waste stream by 50 percent
  • Redesign the cafeteria experience to develop more sustainable food choices while increasing student use
  • Redesign the school commute to reduce the overall environmental impact
  • Create a design for a newly vacant piece of land that would maximize social benefits and minimize environmental impacts

To help students move through the problem-solving process, facilitators introduced students to design thinking. Students learned to break down big challenges by working through phases of defining discrete problems, engaging diverse perspectives, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. The design thinking process offers "a tool to transform complex issues into solutions," Paccione says.

Shire, who served as a facilitator, has used a similar process in the science classroom. "But this was the first time someone has put out a social issue and asked us, in groups, to creatively go through this structured process to come up with solutions. We tried to really expand kids' minds about the wide variety of solutions they could come up with," she says, "while developing empathy for different stakeholders."

Students appreciated the power of the process for unlocking creatively. Margaret's team, for example, took on the urban planning challenge of designing something for vacant land. "Here was a topic I wasn't that familiar with, working with kids I didn't know, who didn't all speak proficient English. It was challenging," she admits, but by the end, "we had a bunch more ideas than I would have brought to the table."

Bringing It Home

Before leaving the summit, the Hopkinton team came up with an idea to apply what they were learning back in their own community. Their local middle school has an empty courtyard -- a vacant space -- that they plan to transform into a sustainable outdoor classroom, complete with rain barrels and composting bins. Their proposal earned a seed grant of $500. With the new school year underway, they're gearing up for implementation.

There's plenty of hard work ahead, but they plan to use their passion to enlist others in the cause. Engaging diverse stakeholders is a leadership lesson that they learned at the summit. "If we make this really cool like the garden we saw at Earth University, the middle school will get as excited as we are," predicts Chris. "We want to make this last," adds Margaret, "and so we need to bring it to the personal level."

Next Up: Tackling Global Economic Challenges

EF Educational Tours is moving ahead with plans for the next global gathering of young leaders in Shanghai, China, in March 2014. Focus for the event will be social responsibility in the new global economy. The summit will follow the Costa Rica format, starting with an immersive travel experience and then bringing high school students together for two days of cross-cultural problem solving. World economic leaders and young social entrepreneurs from China are expected to be active participants.

Most summit attendees come from public schools, and scholarships are available to help offset travel costs. "We want this experience to be available to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds," says Paccione.

Deadline for applying for a scholarship to the summit in China is November 1. (Application information is available here.) As part of their application, high school students are asked to create a video, digital media project, or essay to answer these thought-provoking questions:

  • If you had unlimited start-up money, what socially responsible business would you create?
  • Why are you passionate about this business idea?
  • How would you balance making a profit with making a difference in the world?

How would your students answer those questions? How are you preparing your students to become global leaders who can make good things happen locally? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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