Students from around the world exchange data and learn about each other through a variety of online projects.
Credit: Kristi Rennebohm Franz
A month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, former President George W. Bush announced the formation of a nationwide educational effort to "fight fear with friendship."
"We're going to ask schools all across the USA to join with schools in other countries, to spread the message that we care for each other, that we want to understand each other better," Bush said.
The result was Friendship Through Education, a consortium of organizations that connect classrooms and children in more than one-hundred countries both through the Internet and offline. Projects run the gamut and have included creating "comfort quilts" for sick children in Pakistan, sending letters to children in refugee camps, and taking part in an online student conference on human rights.
What has been billed as the largest educational event of its kind on the Internet entered its seventeenth year in 2012 with the theme, “Dream and Unite.” More than 2.5 million students across 115 countries are producing Web sites that narrow the “Dream and Unite” theme to such categories as “Local Leaders,” “Historical Landmarks,” and “Local Music and Art.” As in past years, peer evaluation of the student work, as well as by a panel of "distinguished judges," determines the winning Web sites. One of the 2011 Platinum winners in the Local Business category was Jan Cheng Junior High School in Taipei City, Taiwan, for “The Kingdom of Chinese Fast Food in Taiwan--Formosa Chang,” an investigation of the success of one of their city’s most popular restaurant chains.
This is what students at Blangah Rise Primary School in Singapore saw when they looked closely at a square meter of land in their schoolyard: ants -- "both black and red" -- a plastic bottle cap, dried leaves, and small rocks. Ten-thousand miles away at Sand Hill Elementary School in Carrollton, Georgia, students also saw ants, plus a black spider, wood chips, gum, a piece of apple peel, seeds, leaves, acorns, tree roots, and nuts. The students from those schools and more than two dozen others collected the data for the Square of Life project sponsored by the Stevens Institute of Technology's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education. Students shared their information and then wrote a report about what they learned. They posted an introduction about their school and their region and then e-mailed questions back and forth during the semester. "We were interested to find that our square had many of the same things that other schools found on their playgrounds," wrote an Arizona class. "We decided the 'Square of Life' must be part of the 'Circle of Life.'"
The ThinkQuest Internet Challenge, in which students team up with their peers in other parts of the world and create a Web site, posed some special challenges for Sizwe, a South African student. Sizwe, who speaks Zulu and very little English, was paired with English-speaking students Janine and Jason of Singapore. Sizwe had never seen a computer before his teacher at the South African Ningizimu School for the Mentally Handicapped enlisted him to contribute the artwork for the site, "20th: The Passing of a Century." The site, chronicling with art and words the events, world trends, and people who made a mark during the last one-hundred years, won ThinkQuest's Silver Award. The collaboration results are now among the more than 8,000 Web sites in the ThinkQuest library designed by students for students on such topics as math, science, language arts, art, music, technology, social studies, and sports.
Team members David Mericle and Jacob Kitzman took first place in the ThinkQuest social services category with their The Cuban Experience Web site. Following the win, they founded an organization ("run exclusively by and for students") called Student Exchange Between Cuba and America, Inc. (SECA). Although their organization no longer exists, their very first project brought an exchange student from Camagüey, Cuba, to sister city Madison, Wisconsin. Other efforts included working with the International Outreach Educational Center on summer programs for American students in Cuba, developing a computer center in Havana with the National Peace Foundation, and helping other sister cities programs establish student exchanges. The idea to create the 500-page Experience Cuba site grew from Mericle's and Kitzman's idea that "there was a lack of good, reliable, and unbiased information about Cuba available in the United States."
"It's a game that you can play in school and not get in trouble." "We were learning and having fun at the same time." That's how two Sulphur, Louisiana, middle school students sum up GeoGame, a Web-based geography challenge played in dozens of countries that helps users learn geography terms, read and interpret maps, and increase awareness of geographical and cultural diversity. Former Maplewood Middle School teacher Lisa Montieth once had her students work individually or in small groups. They'd get ten or twenty clues and then set about identifying a mystery city using maps, atlases, and other reference materials, including online resources, to identify the locations and to back up their deductive guesses. When new groups joined the game, information about their hometowns was used to develop new mystery cities. Montieth used GeoGame in conjunction with social studies classes on polar and Cartesian coordinates and maps. "GeoGame was always the catalyst for motivating the kids," says Montieth. "They discovered that maps and geography could be fun as well as informative."
A Web site created by a Canadian teacher allows students from around the world to commiserate and communicate about bullying, which doesn't stop at borders. "God help me. I am so depressed," fourteen-year-old Alexandra wrote on the site. "Why do they hate me so much!!" Bill Belsey, who founded the project after Alberta suffered a tragedy similar to the fatal school killings in Littleton, Colorado, calls it "a collaborative attempt to help people help each other." The site offers resources to combat bullying as well as advice and empathy from students in such countries as Bulgaria, South Africa, the United States, Australia, Sweden, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Ireland. Students post pictures, films, poems, and drawings and share their stories and sympathy. "I have never experienced bullying, and thanks to your story never will bully again, Alexandra, because I don't want anyone to feel like you do!" wrote thirteen-year-old Kayleigh.
When students at the Cleveland School of the Arts got the first act of The Bucco Goat Mystery via e-mail from the International School of Port of Spain in Trinidad, they were slightly intimidated by the island dialect. But not for long. Their fellow playwrights from the Caribbean pointed the city dwellers to Web sites about island-speak, and the Americans were able to maintain the island voice. Former Cleveland creative writing teacher Jonathan Fairman says that when classes in different parts of the world use the carefully constructed outlines and deadlines for plot development, characterization, scripting, and dialog, the results can be enlightening and entertaining. His inner city students have a new take on the world and the important bonus of writing better and more clearly because they have an audience that needs to advance the material they are given. "For my kids, the project is empowerment," Fairman says.
The Global Grocery List asks users to find retail prices for a number of common consumer items: hamburger, rice, oranges, sugar, flour, milk, chocolate, potatoes, butter, corn, peanut butter, coffee, chicken, eggs, and gasoline. Fourth graders in Kim Johnson's class at Oakridge Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida, shopped with their families for prices of items on the list. They compiled and averaged the prices and entered them onto the Global Grocery List Web site. Using math skills, they analyzed data to develop their consumer skills. They were surprised to realize how much it costs to feed a family. They were shocked at how local prices compare with prices from other parts of the world. They wondered how people in poorer places are able to afford a trip to the store.