The Pulitzer Center education team has been thinking a lot recently about relevance in learning, a concept championed by researchers at Harvard University's Project Zero team. The theory is simple: When you're learning something new, it helps to understand why it matters in real life, not just in the classroom.
"Students push their own experiences onto the world and say, 'How do I make this world fit me?'" said Ed.D Mary Helen Immordino-Yang earlier this summer at an education conference hosted by Project Zero.
As proponents of this relevant-learning model, we think it's exciting when students make the connection between their own experiences and a larger global issue. That's what happened this summer in an environmental studies, sustainable development and urban planning class, After School Matters' Sustainable Development Apprentice Program, hosted at Nicholas Senn High School on Chicago's North Side.
Three Pulitzer Center grantee journalists, our senior editor and our former social media editor videoconferenced with the students in Carmen Vidal-Hallett's five-week course, one each week. Vidal-Hallett runs EcoVidalDesign, Inc., an architecture, urban planning and design firm in Chicago. The students studied green building, recycling and water conservation efforts on a local level, and talked with Pulitzer Center journalists and experts who put those local efforts into a global context. "Our conversations with the journalists brought a balance to the content of the program," Vidal-Hallett wrote in an e-mail to me. "The…time with the Pulitzer Center journalists was perfect to reflect about the world and the solutions to our local environmental problems.
"I believe it is essential to bring the global problems to the discussion to understand local issues," Vidal-Hallett wrote. "Climate change is a global problem and our daily actions affect the entire world."
Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley spoke with the students, who were brainstorming ways to make Chicago's streets more pedestrian- and environment-friendly, about his contributions to the collaborative, ongoing reporting project "Roads Kill." He explained that traffic accidents are a glossed-over global public health problem, in many countries a result of poor road infrastructure, an abundance of motorbikes and constant gridlock. The lightbulb went on for a student named Nibah.
"Even in Pakistan and India, where my family is from and I have visited a few times, the road conditions are crazy," Nibah wrote on her blog afterward. "I noticed there were more motorcycles then cars and families sit on the motorcycle while they zoom through the traffic and how the roads are so crowded with rickshaws and other vehicles. Even animals and veneers are on the street and the sidewalks were very narrow. I noticed all these things but never really thought about it or put it together till yesterday when I was like, oh yeah."
"The journalists brought a real everyday-life analysis of the environmental design issues [we] discussed," Vidal-Hallett wrote. "I had the sense that the conversations brought the awareness of the teens' everyday actions. Many of the students have families or a relationship with the countries we talked about and that was very important to feel connected to their original culture."
Caroline D'Angelo, the Pulitzer Center's former social media editor and currently an eco-management analyst at the U.S. Department of State, spoke with the students the week they studied green building. Part of her job is to help make the United States' diplomatic missions and embassies "greener."
"We talked about everything from her greening the US embassies all around the world, and how she and everybody else can raise awareness to green their embassies and also to green the earth as a whole," wrote Shayaan. "It was such an amazing conversation, I learned a lot and can continue to grow in knowledge."
The students also talked with Pulitzer Center grantee journalist Dan Grossman about climate change the week they studied water and wetrofitting. Dan spoke with students about melting glaciers in Peru and desertification in Mongolia.
"Since each habitat and our world's environment are interconnected, these issues may overlap into other communities," Grace speculated.
John Schmid videoconferenced in during their recycling unit to discuss Wisconsin's outsourcing of its paper production and recycling industries to China.
"The conversation with John gave me a different outlook on China," blogged Symone.
Finally students videoconferenced with Pulitzer Center senior producer and grantee Steve Sapienza about clean water access in Bangladesh and West Africa.
"I thought he was very interested in the topic and I was interested," Danielle reflected on her blog of her conversation with Sapienza.
"Mr. Sapienza has been in seven countries to understand this issue [of water access] in different cultures," wrote Sher. "I think we can change the mindset of the people by doing simple things at home such as collecting and cleaning rain water and doing community organizing to demand safe water from politicians." In a great example of relevant learning, Vidal-Hallett had the students build rain gardens and a bioswale as part of the class, putting their new knowledge directly to work.
"Thank you Mr. Hundley, it was interesting to think in that way and see even things I have seen in a different light," Nibah concluded.