This article was written by Bobbie Greene, a 10th Grade STEM & Language Arts Teacher from Collins Hill High School.
One of the most unique aspects of our STEM academy at Collins Hill High School is implementing authentic, real-world experiences. Sometimes, these opportunities are based on suggestions that come directly from our students. Last year, I set up a digital video conference (DVC) for my sophomore STEM students and Mr. Andrew Parks, a civil engineer and foreign service officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who is currently posted in Liberia, Africa. While they enjoyed learning about his practical application of the engineering concepts they had been learning in class, they were especially interested in hearing about the various places where he had traveled and cultures he had encountered. My class is structured around what I call the 3-Cs: culture, communication, and collaboration; so these topics are always at the forefront of any activity or discussion. As Mr. Parks shared stories of his experiences, one of my students wondered aloud if it would be possible to start up a pen-pal program with students in Liberia. The idea sparked a flurry of excited discussion among the students, and I promised to look into the possibility of such a venture.
By working with my network of connections, I was able to establish a partnership program with both the US Embassy and Cathedral Catholic High School in Monrovia, Liberia. Keeping the 3-Cs at the heart of our partnership, my students have a monthly opportunity to connect with high school students in Liberia and engage in thematic discussions based on topics they collaboratively pre-select. These sessions take place through our Polycom Video Conferencing System because of communication restrictions at the embassy, but these DVCs could easily be implemented through Skype or a similar user interface. If a teacher is considering hosting a DVC, I suggest setting up a test call a couple of days in advance to work out any technical issues regarding visual clarity, sound, camera placement, and network connection. I have had to make adjustments to each of these, and my DVCs are still not perfect, so one should always remain flexible!
To prepare for each session, I make use of eCLASS to gauge interest in various topics and to select our panel of student speakers. Students post to a Discussion Board about what aspects of our Liberian friends’ lives, education, culture, or history they would like to know more about. From that list, my counterpart at the Liberian embassy and I decide on the theme and agenda for our next DVC. Once the agenda is set, I post it to eCLASS, and ask students to sound off about which topic they would like to be the “expert” on and participate as panelist speaker. Using eCLASS as neutral ground for sharing ideas and stating opinions has allowed students to really open up, and each video conference has deepened the connection between the two groups of students even though they are separated by more than 5,000 miles.
Before the DVC, I prepare the student speakers by conferencing with them as a small group and asking them to elaborate on what they would like to share during the session. This helps them to organize their ideas and think of specific examples to give or questions to ask. Also, by collaborating with each other during this preparation, they benefit from peers’ suggestions and perspectives, making what they ultimately share with the Liberian students as comprehensive and interesting as possible. My students walk away from these conferences with a clear idea of how the actual DVC will play out, thus helping to ease any nerves of uneasiness about being put on the spot. Below is a sample of what I post to eCLASS Discussions to gauge interest:
On the day of the DVC, I open a Today’s Meet “room” and post the link to our eCLASS News module. I place a Chromebook at each table in the classroom and direct the students to open up the Today’s Meet “room” on the computer. This tool serves to enhance our DVC because students can post follow-up questions or comments in real time for our panel of speakers to see. The panelists then use these posts to propel the conversation or to expand on high-interest topics. Below is a sample of the Today’s Meet transcript I saved from our third DVC which was themed “School and Social Life”:
My students also know that they will be responsible for a reflection on each DVC, as this ensures their active listening even if they are not a panelist. For these reflections, students write a well-organized paragraph based on an original claim related to their observations and thoughts on the topics discussed or questions asked. Below are some quotes from students’ reflections:
“Our video conferences with Liberia have had a significant impact on my outlook towards my education and future career. It has caused me to more extensively consider my options, as well as raise my awareness of the limited education opportunities other countries seem to provide. In addition to this, the conferences with Liberia have helped to improve my dedication to my education. This is because the Liberian student’s we’ve spoken with have displayed an incredible amount of hope and stability in their education, and have overall proved themselves to be reliable role models.” –Kierra M.
“Our video conferences with Liberia have meant a lot to me. I feel that I now have access to communication to “the outside world”. I have never left the United States, and I am happy to be able to see and talk to other people who do not have a daily life like mine. I am very glad to have this opportunity that is not very common to have in school.” –Matthew M.
“The Liberia video conferences have taught me a lot about a culture that I didn’t know a lot about before. Observing how the panels interact with each other has taught me how even though we are thousands of miles away, we aren’t all that different. I have enjoyed getting to know the students and how their daily lives differ from my own, and I hope to continue to learn about their country and culture.” –Faith G.
“The Liberian video conferences changed the way I thought about our society. During the first conference, the Liberian students mentioned their civil war and how it affected their lives. This made me realize how privileged I am considering the opportunities and privileges in my daily life. During the second conference, they explained their education system and its limitations such as the lack of proper equipment and technology. After hearing this I became even more grateful for the material things that make my life a little easier every day.” –Jared K.
These student reflections show the importance of starting and maintaining a program like this. In fact, these comments are exactly what I hoped for when I first proposed this partnership. They remind me of something I was fortunate enough to hear GCPS’s own Dr. Jon Valentine, Director of Foreign Language and Instruction, say at a leadership conference in January 2016–something that got to the heart of my own mission in the classroom: “We need to incorporate more global stories into the classroom so students have a better idea of having a broader idea of the global market. The world is no longer about competition. It’s about collaboration.” Reading my students’ reflections that convey how deeply they have been affected by these interactions with our new Liberian friends makes me incredibly proud to be a part of this initiative. And it has inspired me to want to do even more.
My students and I have already discussed expanding our STEM outreach program to schools in other countries. It will take some time, but we are hoping to develop a network of international schools that we can conference with. We are also planning on starting our own YouTube channel to post videos of STEM projects, science labs, and demonstrations for our international friends to watch and (hopefully!) replicate. Oftentimes in developing countries, the students learn the theory of a content area but never have the opportunity (because of lack of resources, time, or both) to apply that theory in practice. We hope to inspire those students to find ways to apply science and math concepts and practice their critical thinking in ways that are relevant to their environment, society, and culture. My ultimate goal for this program is that the students will be able to share their interest in and passion for STEM-related topics and activities to students in developing countries who often lose their ambition to pursue STEM careers because of the pressure to begin work as soon as possible to get food on the table. I make it a point to give my students opportunities to be “STEM Ambassadors,” and I tell them that they are in a unique position to inspire and guide peers in our global society to work toward careers that will help them improve and develop their countries in lasting ways.
Overall, creating connections between my students’ learning and real-world application of the content in their STEM courses is the most exciting and fulfilling aspect of my job. Witnessing the improvement of their speaking and presenting skills, their overall confidence, and their mastery of the AKS in their STEM classes in such unique ways is an adventure every day; and knowing how meaningful these experiences have been to the students makes it all the more worthwhile.