the promise

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By Rob Schroeder


“These students are the people who will step up and undo the mistakes of the past. We need to teach them how to take responsibility, to step up, to find ways to solve problems, to work with people and not be egocentric.”



According to the World Health Organization, the total amount of food produced in the world, apportioned out to every human on the planet, would provide 2,750 calories daily.  The WHO’s recommended daily minimum calorie intake is 2,100.

Food scarcity is one of the greatest human rights issues the planet faces.  India faces challenges ramping up food production and trade to meet the needs of its burgeoning population; nations in the Middle East and North Africa struggle with water access and global warming’s impact on farming.  Western nations are not immune from struggles: in 2014, 14 percent of US households were food insecure.  In America’s schools, the challenge is more extreme:  nearly half of all students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

These big-ticket issues are not just the purview of international policymakers. Students in Chicago Public Schools and in other classrooms across the country are tackling issues of food and water scarcity head-on through GlobalEd 2 simulations, a grant-funded project at the UIC College of Education and the University of Connecticut.

Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the project aims to expand the curricular space for additional opportunities to learn science and use educational technology in social studies classrooms, without sacrificing curricular goals but rather enhancing these goals through an international context generally not experienced in middle schools.

GlobalEd 2 consists of real-world simulations, challenging students to address problems and challenges across the world.  Classrooms running the simulation are connected online, allowing students to engage in simulated international negotiations, collaboratively attempting to reach solutions to these socio-political scientific problem through the development of “multinational” agreements.

“We’re challenging students to think outside the box in their social science classes,” said Kimberly Lawless, PhD, associate dean for research and co-principal investigator of GlobalEd 2.  “We’re trying to leverage understanding of global issues as a hook for students in social studies classes to learn about science content.”


“We tend to live in a bubble, especially in these schools,” says Natalie Nash, a social studies teacher at Blaine Elementary in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.  “GlobalEd2 brings the problems of the world closer to home.”

Her sixth-grade students, representing the nation of Russia, are focusing on the problem of food scarcity through the lens of four challenges:  economic, human rights, health and the environment.  The economic group is examining how addiction to substances such as alcohol and tobacco dilutes spending power; the human rights group is studying whether populations have access to food that is culturally appealing; the health group is framing obesity as an issue of malnutrition and the environmental group is examining water pollution and water access.

Teacher Natalie Nash works with a student group in her classroom

These students are taking part in a 14-week journey through three phases.  The first phase is a research period lasting six weeks, requiring students to use text and web resources to research the challenge.  Students identify key scientific issues of concern such as pollution, desalinization, greenhouse gases and climatology as well as their assigned country’s cultural, political, geographical and economic influences on science perspectives.  After studying current political policies of the country, students craft an opening policy statement composed of scientific arguments.

In a six-week interactive phase, students engage in digital negotiations on their policy statement with other classrooms across the United States, each representing a different country.  Students refine their arguments and engage in multilateral conferences with other classrooms/countries.

The interactive phase concludes with the posting of closing statements, reflecting the final position of each country-team on the four issue areas.  The final stage of the simulation is a debriefing, lasting two weeks, in which students review what they learned and think about how they can apply this science content knowledge and skills in other contexts.

Nash positions food scarcity within the context of her students’ lives, most of whom do not come from low-income homes.  When clean water, clean air and nutritious food are all givens, Nash wants her students to question what happens when these rights are taken away or prevented:  what actions can be taken, how problems can be solved.

On a warm but blustery fall day, with students adorned in Cubs gear in anticipation of a playoff game later that night, each group is huddled around iPads and laptops putting the finishing touches on their positioning statements, which will be presented the next week to Nash, who represents a major government body seeking recommendations.

The teams’ final recommendations included the construction of double-decker indoor farming facilities to mitigate Russia’s short growing season (economic), the start of a World Water Organization to regulate water usage and educate about water pollution (environment), running a comprehensive program to educate Russians on the effects of obesity due to poor diets (health) and the creation of a week-long symposium for world religious leaders to discuss issues of food scarcity, with sensitivity to indigenous citizens and their cultural traditions (human rights).

“I’m trying to gauge where they are, what they are thinking; do they understand what we are doing?” Nash said. “These are pretty abstract concepts, gauging whether or not they understand what their job is and what the issues really are.  A lot of times they are just stuck, and I keep questioning them, pushing them a little further.”

Students discuss their strategy decisions in a small group in Natalie Nash's classroom.

Argue-research-argue behavior exhibited by students is backed up by growth in student writing, Nash says.  She sees clear growth in skill at identifying pieces of evidence in a paragraph and building reasoning from that evidence, in particular with the use of transitional words to take a reader from examples of evidence to connecting evidence to reasoning.

She says the curriculum’s cross-subject breadth helps students build stronger connections to learning and creates lifelong learning pathways.  The environmental group in Nash’ classroom incorporated lessons from science classes on water pollution in their research regarding worldwide water access, for example.  The crossover gives students freedom to direct their own learning in generating solutions to these world challenges.

“The world is becoming so much smaller, and we have so much access to so much more information and so many cultures, but at the same time, we’re screwing up the planet,” Nash said. “These students are the people who will step up and undo the mistakes of the past.  We need to teach them how to take responsibility, to step up, to find ways to solve problems, to work with people and not be egocentric.”


In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, fears of job opportunities, outsourcing and foreign competition have bubbled to the surface.  Underlying these worries are perceived threats to America’s competitiveness in STEM fields.  Only 44 percent of 2013 high school graduates were ready for college-level math; 36 percent were ready for college-level science.  Black and Latino students in particular are under-represented in advanced math and science classrooms.

Beyond the alarm-bell numbers, deeper qualitative trends explain why American students are shying away from STEM career fields.  Studies indicate the selection of academic subjects and career pathways are influenced by a student’s interest and self-efficacy in a subject matter.  American students cite a lack of relevance of school-based science to their everyday lives as a rationale for low levels of interest.  Curricular design based on the pressure of standardized testing is not helping; instructional time in science is low, opportunities for students to learn how to engage in productive scientific argumentation in school-based science is rare and teachers express little confidence into manage socio-scientific inquiry.

Two Black students in Tonja Robinson-Harris' classroom are conducting research on an iPad.

The decline of interest in science among middle school students is particularly troubling because the middle school years are crucial to the formation of academic and career pursuits.  The GlobalEd 2 team argues one way to address this decline is to engage students in authentic, real-world inquiry requiring collaborative problem-solving grounded in the “lived world” students’ experiences.  In particular, to transform performance, participation and retention in science for females and low-income student populations, GlobalEd 2 serves as a vehicle to broaden the meaning of science to better connect with the realities of students’ lives.

“We’re dealing with cultural issues, political issues, religious issues, economic issues, all topics typically included in a social studies class,” Lawless said. “But to get to the core of understanding, you have to understand the science of something like the hydrological cycle and how we’ve put it in danger.”

Research from Lawless and Scott Brown and Mark Boyer from the University of Connecticut suggests participation in GlobalEd 2 increases both interest and self-efficacy in science.  Their article, “Promoting Positive Academic Dispositions Using a Web-based PBL Environment: The GlobalEd 2 Project,” found 13 of 18 demographic subgroups demonstrated an increase in science interest and self-efficacy.  Six traits detail why the GlobalEd 2 environment has been conducive to driving these outcomes:  student-centered; structured, contextualized problems; multi-disciplinary focus; stressing self-regulation and collaboration; reflection and evaluation; and closing analyses.

Further research indicates GlobalEd 2’s authentic writing opportunities increase self-efficacy and academic performance in writing.  In their chapter “Promoting Students’ Writing Skills in Science Through an Educational Simulation,” Lawless and Brown detail how students’ writing skill and efficacy change based on evaluations of a GlobalEd 2 pre-test and post-test.  Their analysis indicated females and students from urban settings showed significantly more self-efficacy in writing, while all demographic groups showed increase in open-ended writing quality.  Lawless and Brown attribute this change to GlobalEd 2’s space for students to construct written arguments in real-world contexts and the application of knowledge to problem-solving.

In a study on “Science Vocabulary Development in a Problem-based Learning Simulation,” researchers Lawless, Lisa Lynn, PhD Educational Psychology ’16, Kamila Brodowinska, PhD Educational Psychology student and Kimberly Richards, PhD Curriculum and Instruction student, among others, found GlobalEd 2 was a uniquely-suited vehicle for developing vocabulary through scientific experience rather than rote learning, enhancing science literacy.

A group of students in Tonja Robinson-Harris' classroom are excitedly viewing information on in iPad

Urban males, who on average used the fewest scientific terms before GlobalEd 2, used significantly more in post-simulation evaluation.  Previous research trends suggested students using fewer vocabulary terms would continue to do so after a simulation or experiment.  All students showed usage of more sophisticated vocabulary to discuss the consequences of water shortage, such as famine and disease.  The researchers suggest students began the simulation with background knowledge and ended more focused on outcomes and solutions to global challenges.

“Once you understand that there are people in physical or economic scarcity around the world, you begin to think about the ways to resolve these problems that involve the knowledge and resources of multiple governments and multiple countries rather than just thinking about the United States or the US-centric version of what’s going on in the world,” Lawless said.


Any functional game of charades needs to have some rules regarding topic matter.  Open up the game to any page of the dictionary and chaos will ensue.

In Tonja Robinson-Harris’ seventh-grade classroom at Frazier Preparatory Academy in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, chaos is ensuing.

Her students are playing a version of charades to drive home the realities of food scarcity.  Divided into three groups, one student in each group receives an index card from Robinson-Harris with a concept to act out.  Granted, there is some B-movie acting taking place, but the role playing spurs students out of their seats, shouting out answers, waving their arms in frustration, begging the sometimes-hapless acting students for more information.

Tonja Robinson-Harris teaches a lesson in her CPS classroom, with students raising their hands in the background.

When the word “malnutrition” is revealed as the true nature of one of the charades, the acting student can’t believe no one guessed the word, while his group members rag on his acting performance.  More than one student offers ideas as to how they would act out the concept.

“GlobalEd2 is a beautiful struggle, to say the least,” Robinson-Harris said. “My students have started to like the program almost to the point where they want to do nothing else in class.”

Robinson-Harris earned buy-in from her school’s principal to teach GlobalEd2 on a daily basis in the 2015-16 school year after teaching the curriculum two days per week the year before.  She says the focus on food disparity opened up new ways for students to think about the city they call home; conversations about food scarcity worldwide led to discussions on food deserts in American cities, a concept her students found hard to fathom.

Although she does not teach writing, Robinson-Harris owns a degree in writing, bolstering her with deep insights into her students’ writing progress.  She says in the first year of teaching GlobalEd2, students started the simulation writing at a very surface level of reasoning; they struggled to connect evidence to their claim.  Their writing was expository, simply writing about a topic.  Over the course of the simulation, Robinson-Harris watched this trend reverse itself, a change that corresponded with a boost in student test scores across subjects.  She says the emphasis on connecting evidence to claims is a skill students recognize they need to use in writing, literacy and reading courses.

Teaching the GlobalEd2 curriculum has transformed the way Robinson-Harris views her role as an educator.  She says her teaching style changed to a role as a coach and a facilitator as opposed to a traditional teaching role.  Now more apt to rely on group work, her students hash out different situations and scenarios, with her role to facilitate and push forward these group discussions.

“I don’t care what job you have, unless you are a hermit, you need to be able to support your claim,” Robinson-Harris said. “As an adult, you need to think that way, and students need to be taught even earlier to exercise that type of way of thinking.”

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