At Ancona we don’t tell students that climate change is a problem or what to do about it; we let them learn about climate change by analyzing real-world data, and we empower them to take whatever action they feel is right and effective. The 5th and 6th grade unit on Climate Change is highly interdisciplinary and is based very firmly in real-world contexts–two fundamental principles of project-based learning. 5th/6th Grade Math/Science teacher Sylvia Glassco’s description of the unit captures this and more:
“Beginning in 1970, students travel through time to investigate breaking climate data as it is released. Studying and simulating experiments with ice cores and sea ice, ozone thickness, and regional and seasonal shifts in animal behavior, students make scientific judgments about what is happening and what needs to be done. Taking various global perspectives, students come together to debate international treaties at two mock conferences addressing climate change.”
Throughout the unit, students develop a deeper understanding of some key science concepts and processes, including climate systems, energy transfers, data collection and graphing, science as an iterative process, as well as skills in the areas of non-fiction reading and writing, public speaking and debate. They also tackle essential questions like, “How do climate systems and human behavior interact?” “How do scientists refine their understanding over time?” “What are the responsibilities of scientist-citizens?”
By reading a selection of news articles from the past four decades and by re-enacting various experiments from those times, as well as learning about scientist-citizens like Rachel Carson, all within a cultural context, which they explore through the music, images, and social/political trends of those decades, students reconstruct our nation’s fluctuating relationship with the causes and effects of climate change. They are encouraged to analyze the data and debate the implications, learning to identify and handle different kinds of information–distinguishing between demonstrable facts and expressed opinions.
As the unit progressed and students’ knowledge about the human impact on climate grew, so did their frustration and their desire to do something about it. They began to explore ways to communicate the facts and to motivate people to take action. Thsi desire to do something about climate change led perfectly into the two culminating projects students were responsible to create. Each student prepared a paper for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, where they represented various nations (considering the economic, social, and political contexts of those nations). They also formed groups to create projects that allowed them to act on their beliefs about climate change. Students chose a variety of ways to take action, including a podcast, which will soon be broadcast on a local radio station, a movie, a series of posters (that you may have seen in the lobby of the school over the past two months), a climate rally–in front of the school on two different ocassions, a web site, an Instagram feed (titled “climate change 101”). One group of students is still planning a bake sale, the proceeds of which would allow them to “adopt” a tract of rainforest through the Nature Conservancy, and another group of students is looking for grant money that would help Ancona get solar panels for the roof of the school.
Project-based learning requires that students truly grapple with real-world problems and construct their knowledge and understanding through first-hand engagement with primary source documents and experts. They are also afforded the opportunity to express their ideas and feelings and to propose, implement, and analyze solutions of their own. These elements of project-based learning are all present in the integrated Climate Change unit the 5th and 6th grade students engaged in this year.