Guiding Question(s): How can we create a town that meets our needs and has a small impact on the environment?
Important Topics: natural resources, needs and wants, environmentalism, communities, jobs and economics
Important Skills: systems thinking, engineering, collaborative imaginative play, understanding cause and effect
GHSA: In what ways is the learning experience relevant to teaching sustainability?
Jennifer: This unit is about how people interact with and change the environment in order to get what they want and need. When you are a young learner the ways in which the built environment are connected to the natural environment are often invisible, so I wanted to make the connections clear.
GHSA: In what ways did your students engage with these questions, topics, and skills?
Jennifer: Students built a model town out of a variety of materials in the school's yard. We began by brainstorming what the kids believed a town should have in order to meet its residents’ needs. From that list, students grouped and prioritized items. Then, we researched each topic and considered our different choices. For example, students learned about different types of electricity generation and forms of transportation.
To support this choice making, we practiced thinking through causes and effects, using if -> then sentence frames. When students voted they had to refer to effects to support their choices. For example, they wrote things like, “We should choose busses because they cause less traffic and pollution.” Next students used a variety of natural and recycled materials to build mini versions of whatever they choose to add to their town.
After each addition to the town, students were able to play in the town. Each child had a small wooden peg person that represented themselves. These allowed them to enter the town on an imaginative level and play out the effects of each new addition to the town. For example, when they added a farm to the town, some students had their person work on the farm, others drove the truck of food to a store, others worked in the grocery store, and others still came shopping at the store. This was a crucial step, because by engaging with each new aspect of the town through play, students really had the time and space to process the new ideas they were learning about.
GHSA: How did these activities allow the students to explore systems thinking?
Jennifer: We wanted them to understand how many of the things we rely on are only available to us because a lot of different pieces work together in systems. For example, the students wanted to use electric cars in their town, so we had them work through each element needed to make it possible to use them. We used a thinking routine called “parts of the whole” which asks students to describe the job of the whole system, list each part of the system and its job, then imagine what would happen if different parts of the system were missing.
In this example the job of the system is to allow people to get around quickly. It requires cars, money to buy them, roads, driveways, parking lots, stop lights, and charging stations, which in turn require electricity, which brings in a whole new system. We did this thinking routine as a group throughout the unit and students practiced it on their own as well.
In addition, many of the hands-on activities allowed the students to think critically about systems. For example, we engaged students in the engineering process when it came time to add a water system to our town. We took the kids to visit the Highland Park reservoir and filtration plant and learned about the system that moves water in Pittsburgh from the rivers to each of their homes. Then, we challenged the students to recreate a mini version of that system in our town. This part of the unit was definitely a kid favorite and everyone got nice and wet in the process.
GHSA: What most surprised you about the way your students engaged with the activities? Do you feel they achieved the identified learning outcomes?
Jennifer: It was very interesting for me to see the students engage in systems thinking. They proved very capable of dissecting the parts of systems, and understanding the jobs of different parts and how they work together. They needed a bit more scaffolding in order to think of ways that multiple systems interact.
GHSA: How did you document the learning?
Jennifer: We took pictures almost every day to document the unit. At the end of the project the students also worked in small groups to explain one element of their town for a video. At the end of the unit we had parents come in and presented a slide show of the process and the video, then kids took their parents outside to play in the town. Additionally each kid kept a portfolio of work from the unit which included all of their papers on cause and effect, systems, and reflections on their imaginative play.
GHSA: You are planning to do this again, correct? Are there changes you are making to the unit this year?
Jennifer: The students understanding of cause and effect as it related to environmental choices was weak last year; for example, understanding the effects of driving gas powered vehicles, or the effects of wasting water or electricity. They could match causes to effects easily, but did not seem to have a robust understanding. In order to deepen kids level of understanding, I'm going to try to cover fewer examples of environmental impacts but in greater depth.
I'm also introducing the concept of money earlier in the unit. It was amazing how much economic negotiation came out during their role playing with money. Some kids wanted to have jobs as teachers or firefighters and were confused about how to make money doing these jobs, since you do not pay these people directly. This led to a discussion about taxes and students voted to take taxes out of everybody’s stash of beads in order to pay salaries to people providing public services. Some students became very entrepreneurial and convinced their neighbors in the town to let them cut their grass for a few dollars. It would be interesting to see how student’s decision making about electricity generation or transportation would be affected if they also had to consider the relative costs of those decisions.
Unit Planning Document (PDF)
Final Assessment Sample (PDF)
Systems Quiz (PDF)
Institute of Play Design Pack
Teaching Systems Thinking in Science (Science for All blog post by Kirk Robbins)
Jennifer Porter and The Environmental Charter School are also hosting a free event called Open the Door to Outdoor Learning as part of Remake Learning Days, to share how we get our students outside to discover the power and joy of nature. Whether you have access to multiple acres, a backyard, or an urban neighborhood, you will learn tricks of the trade from experienced educators. Find a flyer of the event here.