Last week in this space I recommended studying one of life’s essentials, the water we drink. I also endorsed project-based learning because it demands that students become producers of knowledge, not mere regurgitators of canned information.
A number of readers asked for more, and so here’s a second recommendation: let’s study the air that we breath every minute of every hour of every day. This particular project is also a good example of how technology can support genuine learning.
For this project, an elementary school needs a portable air quality indicator, one of which costs about $250. Suppose that three or four times each school day students carry their monitor outside, turn it on, and record the measurements–which would be automatically entered into an accessible data base. Back in class, they could compare the daily and hourly readings for their playground and look for changes. They would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher. Perhaps they would ask local scientists to come in and talk and also Skype with experts from all over the globe.
They’d be studying the science of air quality and learning about the specifics of air pollution, the causes and consequences of asthma, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps they’ll become curious about the incidence of asthma and other lung-related conditions in their town or state and begin trying to plot and graph air quality against lung-related conditions.
Everything they learn will also produce more questions, more avenues to explore, and, for teachers, nothing is more satisfying.
As for students, this is genuine knowledge that they are going to ‘own,’ and nothing in school is more satisfying than that.
Because students will be aware that they are producing useful knowledge, teachers won’t be confronted by those awful complaint/questions, “How is this relevant?” or “Why should I care?”
Now suppose that every elementary school in the area has its own portable air quality indicator! That means that hundreds of students will be engaged in this project, comparing readings. Perhaps elementary students in other towns or states (or countries!) would also be participating, and that would allow even broader comparisons.
On one level, this project would break new ground, because as CityLab noted, “Measuring air quality has been the purview of state environmental regulators, who rely on monitors approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That data is used to send out bad-air alerts (the green, orange, and red warning days) and for regulatory purposes.”
Because educators are notorious for being reactive, not aggressive, it’s also important to note that lots of ordinary citizens have become engaged in the study of the air we breath. That is, this project isn’t radical, and it won’t cost educators their jobs, if they make connections with interested groups. For example, The Central California Environmental Justice Network has several projects monitoring air quality. “By putting monitors in backyards and around schools (in the San Joaquin Valley), the group is hoping to see what the area’s biomass plants and the dozens of trucks that rumble through are pumping into the lungs of disadvantaged residents.”
It’s also happening in Grand Junction, Colorado, where a group that calls itself “Citizens for Clean Air”has ordered 25 air monitoring devices.
“We wanted to know where pollution was coming from, what was the cause and what were the levels,” said Win. The monitors will measure things like exhaust emissions and dirt, heavier and larger particulates. “They shoot the laser beam through the air that’s flowing from the outside, and it counts the particles as they go through,” said Gerald Nelson with Citizens for Clean Air. They’ve placed the monitors around the Grand Valley in order to get a comprehensive count of particulates. Some are in higher elevations or lower spots, and they stretch from Mack to Whitewater, Grand Junction and Palisade.”
Let’s go back to the kids for a minute. As they began to understand–and perhaps be outraged by–anomalies, they might feel compelled to write letters or articles for local publications. Perhaps some would create video reports that could be posted on YouTube…and maybe even picked up by local television news.
This “curriculum” is about more than air. It’s also about democracy, independence, collaboration, and knowledge creation. Projects like these teach more than science, effective writing, and public speaking. Students will learn that information is power, that collaboration produces strength, and that social policies have consequences. Students will learn that they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential. That they matter.
Technology, used imaginatively, makes it possible for students to develop the habit of asking questions and searching for answers.
And technology means our schools and educators can ask of each child, ‘How is he or she intelligent?’–and then create learning opportunities that allow every child to soar. Technology allows students to have more control over their own learning, without downgrading or minimizing the role of the skilled teacher.
Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored–but that was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.
When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.
And finally, this is a zero-sum game: The hours students spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend staring at their phones, consuming technology.