George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Ripped from the Headlines: How to Turn Current Events into Real-World Projects

November 8, 2010

When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, teachers across the country recognized an opportunity to bring real-world applications of math and science into their classrooms. Similarly, the rescue of 33 Chilean miners has triggered student discussions about everything from heroism to human biology.

In the wake of such dramatic events, some teachers are eager to do more than host current-events-style conversations. They want to use the news as a launching pad for in-depth student learning. But making that happen requires teachers and students to dive into topics for which there are no texts or guidebooks. What's more, maintaining student interest can be challenging once the headlines start to fade and media attention shifts to tomorrow's hot topic.

How do you plan for academically rigorous projects that are "ripped from the headlines"? Here are a few suggestions, along with some timely resources.

Look for Messy Problems

These are challenges for which there's no single right answer. You can't Google a solution. Instead, getting to an answer may require trial-and-error or creativity. Problem-solving often cuts across disciplines and involves collaboration with partners who may come at problems in different ways.

It's hard to think of a messier problem than rescuing 33 trapped workers from a collapsed mine shaft. Despite the enormous odds, rescuers managed to hoist the miners to safety weeks ahead of their original timeline.

Imagine a project in which you put students in the role of problem solver, racing the clock to design a rescue. There's no shortage of curricular connections. For example, what would students need to know about human biology and the conditions necessary to sustain life? How about geology or physics? Which experts would they want to interview, and from which fields? In real life, experts ranged from NASA psychologists to drilling specialists, as this CNN post by David Gergen explains.

The Learning Network of the New York Times suggests how you might turn the mine rescue into a high-interest, multimedia project focusing on universal themes.

Make It Relevant

A breaking news event might grab your students' attention briefly, but how will you sustain interest over time? And what if your students live far from the action? Teachers who are implementing projects relating to the Gulf oil spill have been discussing these questions during recent broadcasts of Teachers Teaching Teachers. David Pulling, a veteran writing teacher from Louisiana, says he is allowing time for the right project to emerge from ongoing discussions and student interests. "I know it's there," he says, "but it's still unfolding."

One strategy to make a project relevant is to connect students across distances. Those living far from the action get a chance to "see" an issue through the eyes of peers who are experiencing it at close range. "My students who don't live on the Gulf Coast might need to be reminded that this crisis did not end when the Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped in mid-July," says Paul Allison, who teaches at the East-West School of International Studies in New York and is active in the National Writing Project.

Allison and other educators from the NWP have launched a student publishing site to bridge the distance. Voices on the Gulf gives students a forum to discuss ongoing issues related to the region, whether they have a bird's eye view or are located hundreds of miles away. "With Voices on the Gulf ringing in their ears," Allison adds, "it is easier for students to empathize with the on-going psychological, economic, and ecological dimensions of this crisis." He says teachers who have stayed with the topic "report that their students appreciate the opportunity to finish the process of grieving. When they talk about BP never being able to 'make it right,' my students sit up and listen."

Another strategy is to find an issue closer to home that plays off the big headlines. How might natural resources in your students' backyard be affected by a manmade or natural disaster? In Atlanta, teacher Mike Reilly decided to shift from the Gulf spill to a project about ongoing water shortages in Georgia. (A participant in last summer's PBL Camp hosted by Edutopia, Reilly has been blogging about his use of real-world projects here. Student interest is likely to be heightened when students can see the connection between a topical issue and their own lives.

Encourage Action

Students may want to do more than learn from the news. After the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January, young people across the country were moved to take part in service projects to aid victims and raise funds for relief efforts. This Washington Post article highlights just a few examples from schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse continues to update resources for students who want to support relief efforts in Haiti.

DoSomething, an organization that promotes youth action, suggests several ways for students to help their own communities prepare for disaster.

Have you found meaningful ways to bring today's news into your classroom? How have your students responded? Please share your stories.

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