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Perspective | North Carolina students engage in purpose-driven inquiry to address global challenges

This week is Global Goals week — an annual week of action, awareness, and accountability for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are aimed at addressing global challenges like poverty and hunger. In North Carolina, two schools have integrated purpose-driven, interdisciplinary, and collaborative inquiry into their classrooms to empower students and teachers as local and global change agents during a particularly uncertain school year.

In the spring of 2021, approximately 90 ninth grade students in Person and Wake Counties at two NC Cooperative Innovative High Schools embarked on multi-week investigations of global water and sanitation challenges.

Inspired by UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Adequate Sanitation, the teachers and students at Person Early College for Innovation and Leadership (PECIL) in Roxboro and Wake STEM Early College High School (Wake STEM) in Raleigh worked with the Friday Institute’s New Literacies Collaborative to plan and enact their interdisciplinary inquiry projects. The schools used the Project-Based Inquiry (PBI) Global cycle, an instructional process that encourages students to develop solutions to real-world problems.

Spires, H.A., Himes, M.P., Paul, C.M., & Kerkhoff, S.N. (2019). Going global with Project-Based Inquiry: Cosmopolitan literacies in practice. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 63(1), 51-64.

The work was supported by a National Science Foundation Discovery Research PreK-12 (NSF DRK-12) Grant awarded to Executive Director Hiller Spires at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

The planning and enactment of these projects were no small feats as the teachers and students had to develop and navigate multiple contingency plans due to the ever-changing COVID-19 school landscape in order to learn more about sustainable water and sanitation practices in their own communities and beyond and to take social action toward meeting 2030 targets. Despite the logistical challenges, students, teachers and the Friday Institute team emerged from the projects with a sense of accomplishment and continued urgency to spread awareness and further pursue solutions for the 17 enduring global challenges enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Remote but connected

The planning process for these projects began in summer 2020 with the teacher teams at each school meeting remotely with the Friday Institute team. Across multiple days of sessions, the project frameworks at PECIL and Wake STEM began to take shape. The teachers at each school used their expert knowledge of their content areas, students, and school and community contexts to inform their schools’ project designs.

At PECIL, Principal Shirlrona Johnson tasked the teacher team of Beneita Dennis (math), Steve Dunevant (history/social studies), David Hardt (math), Diego Ortiz (Spanish), Micki Powell (science), Micholene Schumacher (academic support), and Matthew West (English) to think about how they could successfully engage in the project with students in remote, hybrid, and face-to-face learning environments.

PECIL teachers decided to create curated activity boxes for the students to pick up at the school; the hands-on activities in these boxes could then be facilitated during remote learning sessions. These boxes included items like a common narrative text — A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park — and a water testing kit. Students read and discussed the book and conducted local water testing as background building activities that informed their inquiry question design.

Wake STEM’s Principal Drew Ware and Assistant Principal Sophia Overdiep emphasized the importance of building relationships with and among students as foundational to engaging in collaborative inquiry in remote and hybrid learning contexts. The ninth-grade teacher team at STEM, including Andrew Bagwell (history/social studies), William Burgess (science), Suzanne Gibbons (math), and Myriam Nantz (Spanish), immediately began contemplating how to lay the groundwork with their students for successful peer collaboration.

Some of the strategies that the Wake STEM teachers pursued were engaging in icebreaker and trust-building activities at the beginning of the school year and at the beginning of the PBI Global project, modeling language and providing opportunities for practice with students for communicating and collaborating with peers, establishing clear expectations for communication through a group contract, and pairing each PBI Global student group with a teacher coach who facilitated regular check-in meetings.

The teachers at PECIL and STEM met monthly with the Friday Institute team to continue to build out their respective PBI Global plans for spring 2021, including possibilities for the student showcase and social action. By January 2021, it became clear that the schools needed to be well-prepared for engaging in PBI Global virtually and in hybrid contexts, and the decisions were made by the teachers to hold the PBI Global showcases remotely in March.

A silver lining of holding remote student showcases emerged from parent and external partner feedback; many of these attendees expressed that the virtual format provided them with the flexibility to engage in the event during work hours. In fact, both schools’ showcases had over 100 attendees who actively participated in the sessions by asking student groups questions in the chat and in breakout rooms. 

‘Then I start thinking about ways I can help’

During the showcase, students shared their inquiry findings and solutions on diverse water and sanitation topics, from the impacts of agricultural run-off on groundwater to the connections between clean water and educational equity. To experience Wake STEM and PECIL’s virtual student showcases for yourself, we invite you to view these short videos from their projects: Wake STEM and PECIL

Wake STEM’s project
PECIL’s project

In terms of social action, the students at Wake STEM created social media campaigns to raise awareness regarding each team’s specific inquiry findings and proposed solutions. At PECIL, the students held a virtual walk for water in which they raised funds for Water for South Sudan, an organization founded by Salva Dut (whose life story is shared in A Long Walk to Water) to build water wells in his home country of South Sudan, and collected donations of clean, bottled water for their local food ministry.

In a school year that was far from typical, PBI Global afforded the students and teachers at Wake STEM and PECIL with opportunities to pursue relevant, standards-aligned inquiry-to-action that has lasting impact. As Rethika Revur, a Wake STEM student, shared, “PBI Global has given me a broad knowledge of problems in the world. Now, whenever I turn on my tap, I just think, ‘Oh wait! There are other people that don’t have water,’ and then I start thinking about ways I can help.”

Marie Himes

Marie Himes is a research associate at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University. Himes works with the New Literacies Collaborative to analyze the intersectionality of literacy, evolving technologies, and media across research, policy, and practice.