Published On: Wed, Nov 15th, 2017

Using the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals


Each year I start out with the same question for my students: What is the biggest issue you think our world faces, and what can we do to solve it?

This challenge-based learning approach allows my students to design our class and focus on real-world issues. With their ideas, we build our class projects together.

Students next identify a problem in our own community. We discuss all of their ideas and then look at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Using this resource, we investigate the problems they identify and compare them to world issues. For example, a few years ago, students decided that childhood obesity was a problem in our community. After researching the Sustainable Development Goals, they determined that globally, malnutrition was possibly a bigger issue. I developed a guiding question, asking students to ponder the following: Which was more of a problem, obesity or starvation? Which had a more negative effect on the body? After much debate and argumentation, students decided that overall health was more of an issue than either topic.

Taking a Local and Global Approach

Once we select and agree upon a topic, students brainstorm how they could make a difference regarding it. The first year I tried this approach, with high school seniors, the students’ final project was an online health course in iTunes U to teach kids about healthy choices. The next year, the seniors wanted to focus on the goal of equality in education. They partnered with a nonprofit organization and created educational resources for a school in South Africa. The third year, I worked with seventh graders, who wanted to focus more on the Life on Land Global Goal, specifically endangered animals, so we partnered with the Dallas Zoo. They created a multi-touch book, Through Their Eyes, to highlight the zoo’s conservation efforts.

Last year, my seventh graders struggled with selecting just one goal—there were too many topics they wanted to address. After much discussion and a vote among all of my classes, we decided to focus on five different goals throughout the year. The goals they selected were Zero Hunger, Climate Change, Life on Land, Clean Water and Sanitation, and Responsible Consumption. Their big idea was to make changes in our community for each of these goals and then create a multi-touch book to help others learn.

The book, Saving Earth, was a bigger task than Through Their Eyes. How could seventh graders complete five projects and publish a book in one school year? How could I still teach my state objectives? What if we didn’t finish?

I always have so many questions when we start a project. It’s hard to not know exactly where you’re going. However, when I let students take control, the ownership provides such great learning. I let each student or group of students develop an action plan. They have to provide the who, what, why, and how and present their action plan and idea to the class for feedback. I give them a copy of our state objectives so they know what exactly we have to learn in class. They look for connections, and when they can’t find them, I step in and brainstorm with them.

I look at their project proposals and come up with ways to incorporate my required objectives into what they want to do. It takes creativity on my part, but we’re consistently able to accomplish our projects and cover the state-mandated curriculum.

For example, our state curriculum includes understanding water quality and developing an understanding of water pollution. Another objective deals with tropisms, or how plants grow in response to light and water. Last year, I developed a lab where students grew plants in polluted water to see the effects. They documented this experiment and used their results in Saving Earth as evidence to support their thoughts, and they created interactive graphs, tutorials, and diagrams. This activity covered our objectives perfectly, though I had never previously considered this approach to teaching them.

Connecting With Experts

We also connect with experts around the world. Last year we FaceTimed with students in Alaska, Australia, and Iceland to discuss climate change and compare our different cultures. We also communicated with a scientist in Antarctica through Flipgrid to learn more about a part of the world none of us have ever been to.

For World Water Day, we conducted water quality testing with students in Turkey, Canada, and 18 locations around the U.S. We then devised a cleanup plan for our local water sources and shared our ideas with our global classroom.

All of these authentic connections help my students learn at a deeper level and increase engagement in the project. When students are writing about climate change and are able to discuss it with a scientist in Antarctica, they gain so much more than they would from just reading a textbook.

During the course of completing the challenge-based learning activities, students are artists, illustrators, photographers, and writers. They create media to teach others about global issues. They learn research skills, copyright information, how to work together, and our state curriculum.

Saving Earth was downloaded over 12,000 times in the first month, showing my kids that they truly can make an impact, even at age 12.


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