Photo: Kaito Shibata

When Brooklyn high school chemistry teacher Rayhan Ahmed challenged his students to conduct lab research related to the Flint, Mich., public health crisis caused by toxic contaminants in the city’s water supply, he hoped to replicate existing experiments from water quality experts. He didn’t expect the class’ findings would actually be shared with government officials in Flint.

The Leaders High School chemistry class wanted to find out which corrosive inhibitor would work best to prevent lead pipe contamination. In preparing their lab experiments, they searched the internet to see what prior research had shown. They were shocked by what they found.

“No one had done the study,” Ahmed said.

He realized that their classwork could have a value to the people working to address the problem — both officials in Flint and university researchers working on the crisis. “Kids actually care that their project has a final destination that’s not my file cabinet. It’s going to help real people,” Ahmed said. “They’re adding to a body of knowledge for which no knowledge exists. Their work means something.”

The challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic reminded me of Ahmed and the chemistry students at Leaders High School, and the ability of young people — with proper guidance — to help solve society’s problems.

We have an opportunity to engage students by inviting them to participate in solving the complex challenges faced by our communities during the pandemic. Through project-based learning fueled by robust partnerships between schools and businesses and governments, we can provide students with powerful school experiences that develop critical skills while solving the community challenges brought on by this crisis. Empowering students to help us navigate our post-pandemic world would also energize a student population that is becoming increasingly disengaged from school.

This isn’t a conceptual educational theory. Schools and organizations have been pioneering project-based learning and service-learning projects for decades. While this type of approach to learning has yet to find its way into mainstream education, some states have begun to apply this approach.

For example, in Tennessee, former Governor Bill Haslam has recruited more than 1,000 college students to tutor grade schoolers in the state. When the pandemic hit, many of the college students found themselves scrambling to find a replacement for their newly canceled summer internships. More urgently, grade schoolers and their parents are facing loss of academic progress from the shortened semester and longer summer vacation — the COVID-19 slide. The Tennessee Tutoring Corps will address both challenges.

These project-based community partnerships lend themselves to many different types of coursework suited to high school students, too. A geometry class could redesign the layout of a grocery store to improve product display while enabling social distancing.

An English class could write newsletters for a local nonprofit or an art class could design social media content for a local business that’s changing its services due to the pandemic.

An environmental science class could help a government agency optimize a community garden to enable greater participation by residents and improve crop yields. The students, the agency, and the community could benefit. It provides meaningful learning experiences for students while creating solutions to improve our communities.

I speak to so many leaders who want to help students succeed but don’t know how to connect their business needs with students’ abilities. For some, they simply underestimate how effective students can be at solving complex challenges.

They assume students aren’t at an appropriate age or experience level to tackle them. But I know that young people across our country, much like the chemistry students at Leaders High, are ready to exceed our expectations.

Students want to help solve real-world challenges, and we have more new challenges now than perhaps at any time in the last century. The pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity for us to work together to empower students to participate in building a better future for all of us.

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Mariana Aguilar leads the research team at the California-based education technology company GoGuardian.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. John C. Rendler III 2 months ago2 months ago

    Absolutely true as I work every day with young new engineers and interns at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP)/

    Replies

    • Mariana Aguilar 2 months ago2 months ago

      Thank you for sharing your experience and reading the piece! Great to hear how it is relevant in your work too.

  2. Maggie 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you and Amen, Mariana! Indeed, this kind of work, and not just during COVID is how schools and communities should be co empowering always.

    Replies

    • Mariana Aguilar 2 months ago2 months ago

      I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for sharing and reading.