Launching into the Real World

They call them Change projects, a name started a decade ago. It’s a simple name, but for my students this project signifies that youth voice matters. Allowing middle school students to connect their learning to the real-world can be a game changer for students quickly becoming apathetic in the public school system. Every year a new group of seventh graders choose an issue to solve based on the data they’ve collected in their community. This year’s group is about to figure out they can make a difference!

Reading in the textbook and regurgitating multiple choice questions about the nitrogen cycle meets state teaching standards. But, imagine kids finding where nitrate levels are high by collecting samples in their backyard, then partnering with city experts and stakeholders to build rain gardens on school-yards. Not only does this method teach the content in a way kids will likely never forget, but also inches us forward in solving our community nitrate issue.

So why do so many teachers keep their students’ noses in the book, rather than letting them explore in the real world? They believe it’s more work, they have concerns about behavior and they don’t have lessons to teach this way. They are correct, it is more work, it is more challenging to control behavior and nearly all of the materials to support real-world learning remain locked in a theoretical mist.

Dozens of guides are available for teachers with lovely examples of kids learning through action projects. But, the concept of providing materials “for teachers” remains the problem, we just don’t have the time to read more guides. “For students” is where we need to focus, putting engaging lessons in the hands of students that don’t come with complicated guides. The critical missing piece is the manageable lessons that guide students through the process, written in a language that engages them in wanting to participate.

Rather than adding theoretical reasons for teaching in the real world, I’m providing the first lesson for students to begin their journey. The first step push students to look at their community through the science lens. Because these standards mostly align to ecology, the activities are based heavily on the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools Program.

Whether you plan to use these materials or develop your own, step one to real world learning is supporting them is assessing the community needs. It’s all about exploring what problems exist and what needs to be improved within your community.  Although in science this may look like collecting nitrate samples in streams, in social studies it could include collecting data on the genealogy of named street signs. Either way, this critical first step is the key to organically developing student-led projects. Earth Force calls this step the Community Inventory, Caring for our Watersheds calls it Topics to Consider, and NWF’s Eco-Schools calls it an Audit. Whatever name you choose, launching your students into the real world requires support.

Keep following to learn more about on how these Change projects will soon become part of the anticipated Young Adult Series, EnviroWarriors. In the first book, WinklerWarriors, Maya must save the 44-acre Winkler Botanical Preserve, the local environmental education center for elementary kids.

Lesson 1: Community Inventory (Sept-Dec Science Fair)

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