Can a School Project Make a Difference In a Community?

One innovative school in Michigan hopes to grow a revolution with their "Revolution Garden."

Students showcase their projects from the Kent Innovation High Revolution Garden. (Photo Courtesy: Andrew Holly). 

Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The Industrial Revolution isn’t exactly the sexiest of topics for high school students.

“In education today, kids want to see the practicality of what they are learning,” says Andrew Holly, a social studies teacher in Grand Rapids, Mich. “The Industrial Revolution obviously isn’t that engaging in its historical sense to kids, so we tried to make it about things they care about in their lives.”

Holly and his fellow teachers embarked on a project at Kent Innovation High School  to create a school-wide project using the Industrial Revolution as a link to 21st century social and political problems.

It was a perfect project for Kent Innovation High School, a school that focuses on project-based learning in a team environment. At Kent, which first opened to 108 ninth graders in September 2011, students spend two thirds of their day at the new school focusing on four cores: English, math, science and social studies. The classes use projects, which depart from the age-old conception of the boring school project, as their learning tool.

Students return to their home school for lunch, electives and extracurricular activities. This year, the school added sophomores.

One of the key parts of the innovative project was for teachers to integrate freshman and sophomore students on projects and then have them team up with a community partner, an expert in a field or a non-profit.

“The community involvement was a big part in order to help the students and make sure they had their project moving in right direction,” Holly said. “The goal was to authenticate the work they were doing.”

Fifty groups with 50 projects embarked on the three-and-half week assignment at the start of this semester.

One project called “Political Watchtower” examined how in unseen ways corporations funnel money to politicians. Their theory, said Holly, was that corruption was in the public record and could be obtain.

“They wanted to create a website and compile data, analyze it and see who was donating to whom and put it on website so everyone could see,” Holly said.

The group teamed up with a local website creator to assist them.

Another group of students decided to promote recycling, which has low rates in Grand Rapids, for elementary school students. They created the character “Recycle Ralph” and wrote his story in books that could be passed out at elementary schools. Recycle Ralph and his friends also appear on informational posters.

Perhaps, one of the most unique projects, Holly said, involved a group of four teenage girls who got off to a slow start but uncovered something wonderful. Holly may be a bit partial to the project, he said, because he oversaw it.

The girls had an idea to do something involving water pollution. But what? After struggling for an idea for a few days, they happened upon something called “nurdles,” a microplastic pellet that is about the size of a pea. Nurdles are a major part of ocean pollution especially in the Great Lakes. They are found in cosmetics, toothpaste, facial cleansers and shampoos. Fish ingest nurdles, and in turn, they become toxic.

The group created an awareness campaign around nurdles, and it was selected as a final winner in last month’s competition.

The great thing about the Industrial Revolution projects, Holly said, are the students will continue to execute their ideas, thanks to the award money.

Next up? Projects about the Great Depression.

“There will be driving questions just like with the Industrial Revolution project,” Holly said. “Whose fault is poverty? Why are people poor? And what can we do to fix it? The first two questions are focused on the historical aspect, the last one addresses the larger arguments of today, and we’ll leave the students to form their own opinions and arguments using projects.”

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