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A Student-Centered Project Using the Sustainable Development Goals

You can also listen to this blog post on Episode 38 of the EdTech Classroom Podcast.

A big focus of mine as a STEM teacher is the idea that technology can be used as a force for good. One way that I implement this idea in my classroom is that I teach students about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how technology can be used to achieve those goals. 

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the SDGs, the UN put together this list of 17 different areas that are meant to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future by 2030. These are topics like eliminating poverty, promoting gender equality, zero hunger – all big umbrella areas for social impact.

You can incorporate learning about the SDGs at any grade level. I use them with Kindergarteners, and this learning works in higher education too. Incorporating a social impact lens in the classroom can take learning to the next level, especially when looking for ways to make learning more authentic. 

Image from UN.org

Asking Essential Questions

In teaching about the SDGs, I might ask my 4th grade students essential questions like:

  • Which global goals are important to you?
  • How can kids help make the world a better place?
  • How can technology be used to make the world a better place? 

In asking these essential questions to students, I found that many students in my class expressed interest in helping the environment. Because of this, my teaching partner and I created a coding project around the SDG Life on Land with our 4th graders. 

Students learned about different examples of how technology is used to help life on land. Students learned about how drones are used to survey animal populations. They learned about self-driving tractors. And they even brainstormed their own ideas for how they can help the environment with technology.

Then, as part of the coding unit, I didn’t tell students, “Okay, go try to code these LEGO EV3 robots. Follow the LEGO curriculum” (which – by the way – there is nothing wrong with having students follow the LEGO curriculum. It’s really high quality and exploratory for students).

I wanted to have this project be student-centered, so students actually had to try to solve a real-world problem using coding. This means that students learned how to code these robots during the project itself and not as a prerequisite.

This is a point that Telannia Norfar brought up in our conversation during episode 30. 

Image from LEGO

What Did This Project Look Like in Practice?

On the floor of the classroom, we laid out a bunch of big tarps. Students were given Lego EV3 kits, legos, and thermometers. And on the tarp there was a fake igloo that we created. Basically a box covered with a fitted white sheet and we filled it with ice packs. 

Students were tasked with building their robots, programming them through a series of obstacles (that they created), and then have the robot enter the igloo, take a temperature reading, and come back to the home base. 

This is just one example. But you’ll see there’s a lot of student choice involved. 

  • Choice in how they set up the obstacles.
  • Choice in how they attached the thermometer.
  • Choice in how they solved the problem.

There was also communication involved. Problem-solving. Collaboration. And then of course, they learned the coding skills and standards through testing their programs, experimenting, and trial and error.

When it was time for reflection, students had to give themselves feedback. Student groups refined their code. They made changes. They showed their classmates. 

You Don’t Need Robots!

I understand that if you aren’t a STEM teacher, you might not have robots in your classroom. But my point in sharing this example is that you don’t need robots to do student-centered teaching.

I could have had my students solve a real-world problem by building something using cardboard. I use cardboard in my classroom all the time. It’s such a flexible tool.

The 21st century part of this project is that I incorporated student interests, I found out a way to bring real-world learning inside of my classroom, and then I had students tinker and experiment.

Ways to Improve This Project

There are a number of ways that I could refine this project to make them more in-depth, dynamic, and high quality for students. One way I could have taken this project to the next level would be by incorporating more time for reflection. Reflection happened during this project, but more as a byproduct, or a side effect of the activity, rather than as an intentional part of the learning. Next time I do this project, I think I want to incorporate more opportunities for reflection – on the collaboration process, the building process, the steps along the way. 

Because this project is student-centered, however, I might not do it again if I don’t have a group of students interested in Life on Land. This is why I would also like to improve this project by really taking a dive deep into the student-centered element at play here. Instead of creating the challenge for students, can they decide what the real-world experience is? Can I give them materials so they can create their own igloos? Or can they come up with the challenge entirely, based on an aspect of the environment that they’d like to study? 

Thank you!

Thank you for reading (or listening) to today’s post! What would you change about this project? How can I improve my practice?

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