Recess Blog

Solving Food Scarcity Challenges

By Rob Schroeder
September 20, 2017

“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.

Two students are using a laptop to translate English phrases into Russian, as part of putting together a report for the GlobalEd 2 project focused on food scarcity in Russia.

These students are taking part in a 14-week journey through a grant-funded curriculum created at the College of Education and the University of Connecticut.  Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, GlobalEd 2 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.

The project rolls 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.

Teacher Natalie Nash works with a small group on their Global Ed 2 report.

On a warm but blustery fall day, each group is huddled around iPads and laptops putting the finishing touches on their positioning statements, which will be pnticipation of a playoff game later that nightresented 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.”

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.”

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