The teachers and students of Holy Trinity School in Morrisville, PA, recently tackled some of the world’s toughest challenges: eliminating hunger, designing infrastructure for clean water, and… getting sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to work together.
Over the course of six weeks, student teams each tackled one issue from a modified list of the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations’ objectives for improving the world. The teams — all of which included at least one sixth grader, seventh grader, and eighth grader — created presentations explaining their issues, and designed solutions with a fictional budget of $25,000.
“We wanted a program that involved project-based learning while getting kids from different grades working together,” says Steve Brown, sixth grade teacher at Holy Trinity. “This exercise also gave students exposure to what’s going on in different parts of the world.”
The project culminated with a Shark Tank-style showdown. The teams presented their ideas to a panel of three judges. Schedules got shifted. Nerves got frazzled. But ultimately, each team was able to come together to present its solution. Here’s what students (and teachers) took away.
To convince the judges, teams dove deep into research on their topics, which included climate action, quality education, freedom of religious choice, and responsible media consumption. Then they crafted compelling presentations basked by charts, graphs, and tables based on real statistics.
For seventh grader George Lobis, the process presented a lesson in quality over quantity. “I used to find as much research as I could, but now I know finding reliable research is better than finding it in bulk,” he says.
The teams met a few hours each week across a six-week timeline. When snow days and other delays got in the way, students learned to create schedules and delegate responsibilities. Seventh grade Carmella Mooney says despite a rough start, her team finally found its groove. “We worked on everything in small pieces, then put it together into one big piece,” she says.
Time management was also a challenge for teachers, requiring flexibility and creativity to match three separate classroom schedules. “We were still doing a full school day during this,” says Brown, “but we made it a priority because we felt it was important for the students.”
With three grades in the mix, teachers weren’t sure what kinds of clashes to expect. But students quickly acclimated to a pattern of communicating, collaborating, and compromising.
Even when students didn’t get along, they were encouraged to respect one another’s ideas and opinions. “I learned how to work with different types of people,” says eight grader Andrew Ashcroft, “like people who like art, and people who like to research.”
The project presented a series of firsts: the first time working with kids from other grades, presenting to a large group, or attempting to persuade strangers to give them money. Meanwhile, eighth graders side-eyed sixth graders. Sixth graders were intimidated by the eighth graders. Seventh graders bore the weight of both anxieties.
But weeks of collaborating and practicing deep breathing, persuasive speaking, and eye contact techniques paid off. By presentation time, even teachers were surprised by the students’ newfound confidence and leadership skills. “Even though I was the youngest,” says sixth grader Madison O’Brien, “I still learned to take leadership in my group.”
On the big day, students presented their ideas to three judges: James King, director for the Office for Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference; Pam Lynch, Director of Community Services at the Danaher Lunch Family Foundation; and Gina Vinch, Development Director at Conwell-Egan High School.
The top spots went to three groups that pitched ideas for cleaning up the oceans, ending the plight of hunger, and funding existing organizations to build effective infrastructures. But students and teachers say they’re all excited to tap into their new knowledge and friendships for a similar program next year.
“The students gained an abundance of skills through this experience,” says Vice Principal Jeffery McCusker, “including knowledge about the UN, critical thinking, creative, collaboration, and oral speaking skills. Most importantly, they gained self-confidence by stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something new.”