By Isabel Ruehl
What’s Happening readers open to a bit of productive procrastination were treated to a lesson on climate change and challenges in Ethiopia late last trimester, when Science Teacher Leah Cataldo and her Current Topics in Scientific Research (CTR) students shared an online presentation and survey with the Upper School (US) community.
Using interactive software called Prezi to guide participants through a five-minute presentation on the causes of Ethiopian drought, low crop yield, and bacterial disease, the CTR class proposed three possible solutions and asked the newly informed which seemed most promising: research in drought-resistant genetically modified crops, disease prevention and education, or investment in digging wells.
The question, ultimately, was how best to solve some of Ethiopia’s biggest problems induced by climate change, and although only 37 of the school’s 500-plus members responded to the survey, Dr. Cataldo felt the results were substantive, as nearly 70 percent of participants said investing in wells would be the best solution.
The primary focus of the class is to delve into topics of scientific innovation through studying scientific literature and presenting on a wide variety of topics, all the while informing and interacting with the US community.
Their unit on climate change, prompted by the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change that took place in Paris from November 30 to December 11, spanned two weeks in November and culminated in a What’s Happening email on November 30.
CTR students Becca Cerra, Sasha Frank, and Michael Goldfine (all ’16) have spent the first trimester studying climate change, nuclear topics, 3D printing, and personalized medicine, agreeing that the unit on climate change has been particularly significant.
“One thing I did like about the climate change unit was its relevance to what’s happening today,” Michael said. “With the Paris climate talks on the horizon, everything we were learning felt especially important.”
“I always try to weave a global crisis into Current Topics,” Dr. Catalado explained.
Over her 10 years of teaching the course, Dr. Cataldo’s students have investigated HIV/AIDS, hunger, and water availability.
Integral to the modern nature of the course is the use of technology, Dr. Cataldo said. In addition to the Prezi presentation, students have created digital posters and Kickstarter campaigns to share research they have conducted, and they will continue similar practices until March break, when the elective ends.
Using Prezi led to a diverse collection of anonymous community responses that provided feedback about not only the Ethiopian case study but also about how open the community is to participating in projects like these, Michael said.
“The survey was just a metric to evaluate our project,” he added. “The response rate doesn’t really reflect whether what we created was good or bad. It just reflects how many people check What’s Happening”—an amount he qualified as “very few.”
Still, Becca said, the information collected, especially student responses, showed that those who participated in the survey took the time to think critically about the problem at hand—which is precisely what the CTR class had hoped would happen.
“Once humans’ basic needs are fulfilled, like [having] drinkable water, we can start to focus on critical, but not crucial-to-life, concepts,” wrote one student who voted to dig wells.
Another student chose research on drought-tolerant genetically modified crops on the basis that with a stable source of sustenance, people would be healthier, possessing stronger immune systems that would lead to less disease.
“Though I think infrastructure investments and disease prevention and education are both extremely important,” the respondent wrote, “consistent nutrition is the first step to health in general.”
The one piece lacking from an otherwise cohesive study, Becca said, was discussion: only Dr. Cataldo and the class of three could access and thus benefit from the survey’s results. In the future, the class hopes to have its reach into the broader community result in more discussion of current scientific topics.
“It’s all about extending the classroom experience beyond the classroom,” Dr. Cataldo said. “Innovative applications of technology can inspire solutions, can solve problems, and this is citizen science: you have lots of different people contributing to a solution. Many hands make light work. And this approach gives scientists so much more data to work with.”
On February 5, the trio of CTR students will go to Boston College High School to join a youth summit hosted by Global Concerns Classroom and attended by a wide range of students from both public and private schools. There, participants will spend one full day exploring and discussing climate change with one another—an event Dr. Cataldo said is not too different from the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.
Sasha agreed, adding, “Our CTR class is involved in keeping up with science in the world around us, and it was fascinating to see the world’s leadership debate the same topics that we had discussed in our class.”