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The Smithsonian, Sustainable Communities and Your 21st CCLC Program

In conversation with Heidi Gibson, science curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center, Y4Y recently came to discover how students in 21st CCLC programs can benefit from free, high-quality, global science guides while learning to make their world a better place. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Ms. Gibson, Y4Y was intrigued by the release this past fall of your Sustainable Communities! research guide, designed for students ages 8 to 17. I know this is just one in a specific series of science guides. Can you start by sharing a little about that series?

HG: Absolutely! You might be familiar with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Basically, these are the goals that the countries in the United Nations decided were most important to address between 2015 and 2030. I sometimes refer to them as the world’s strategic plan. These are big, lofty goals — like no poverty and affordable, clean energy — goals that will really impact the kind of future we will have. These goals are both hugely important and highlight some of the most challenging problems we face globally. Making progress towards these goals requires all of us — including young people — to be actively engaged.

This series of learning guides is all about supporting young people in taking on that role. We call the series “Smithsonian Science for Global Goals,” and the guides cover big topics inspired by the SDGs, such as food and nutrition, mosquito-borne diseases, and biodiversity. Using the guides, young people can dig into these topics to find out how these problems affect them in their own communities and how they can be involved in the solutions. We believe involving young people in finding solutions to global problems is critically important to realizing a brighter, more sustainable future and these guides are really developed with that aim.

Y4Y: I’d love to circle back to those global goals in a minute, but first, why don’t you give us a quick snapshot of this latest installation: the Sustainable Communities! research guide.

HG: I’m really excited about our most recently published community research guide on sustainable communities. It’s a fantastic opportunity for youth to learn more about their own communities, including topics like the use of space, housing, transportation, renewable resources and waste. In our guides we have a three-step process —­ Discover, Understand and Act — to help young people understand the complex ideas we are asking them to engage with.

First, they Discover: They start by thinking about what they already know and feel about their own community. This is so important because it allows young people to recognize their own expertise and feel validated with their own knowledge. For example, one activity starts by asking students to think about how recycling works in their community. And young people probably know a little bit about that, so we use that knowledge as a jumping off point for further investigations.

Next, they Understand: This section guides young people to use scientific and social science investigations to build their own understanding of issues and strengths in their communities. For the activity that starts with recycling, they move on to figuring out how even nature recycles through the process of composting, and how that works.  

Finally, they use what they have learned to Act: Using their knowledge to make decisions and take action to make their communities a little better. In the example we’ve been talking about, young people might consider ways to communicate recycling rules to others, or to start composting. This is a really customized, self-directed process. It’s not about telling young people the best things for them to do; the guides are really focused on allowing space for young people to direct their own learning, gather information and realize their own power to take action.

Y4Y: This is such a great tie-in to Y4Y resources, and the trend in 21st CCLC programs on the whole. Our courses on problem-based learning, the design thinking behind our STEAM course, Civic Learning and Engagement, and even our course on student voice and choice are all tools our listeners can access to support adopting the Smithsonian series. Maybe even more relevant, though, is the citizen science aspect of what the Sustainable Communities! research guide is all about. What are the central learning goals of this citizen science opportunity for students?

HG: I think the real goal is to help students develop their identities as problem-solvers, scientists and changemakers. We can’t do that by asking them to regurgitate information that we already gave them. We need to put them in situations where they become scientists and innovators. From the beginning of the guide, we call students “action researchers” and we try hard to make sure that research is authentic. Science is much more than just repeating information that other scientists have previously discovered. Science is about finding out new information. If we want to teach students to do that, then we need to give them the opportunity to use those skills in the real world on something relevant to them and their lives.

There are real, messy, complex problems we face around the world. Finding sustainable solutions will not be easy and we need every mind engaged in this effort! I think this is particularly important for young people because our collective ability to rise to our current challenges will determine the kind of world they live in as adults. I think it’s not only desirable, but absolutely essential, that we give young people the opportunity to help shape the world they will live in.

Y4Y: That brings us right back to those global goals! I love how this guide allows for adapting to different cultures, both within the U.S. and abroad, to really underscore global thinking. Can you share a little about how this guide was designed with international as well as domestic equity in mind?

HG: When we started thinking about the guides, we knew that inclusion and dissemination was vital. We need everyone around the world working together on these goals, so it’s important to do everything we can to make these guides as accessible as possible. This starts with the guides being free and available for download anytime from our website. We also try to do as many translations as possible. But beyond this, we work very hard to make sure the guides are relevant to spaces around the United States and around the world.

In practice, this means the guides often encourage students to investigate their own communities as a way of personalizing the guide to their place. We always try to remember that different places have different resources, so our guide is deliberately low-resource – the most important resource is the local community. The guides have lots of different options for ways to find out, record information, and share ideas. For example, one group might find sharing ideas through drama is useful, another might prefer a visual representation, and another might even use a podcast! By providing lots of different options, we hope that students can make the choice that works the best for their learning and their context.

Y4Y: That’s a lot of flexibility in the research guide, for sure, in a sort of qualitative sense. What advice do you have for out-of-school time programs that may want to adapt your curriculum to fit with the diverse initiatives they’re doing now? And can you offer some general examples?

HG: Yes, lots of out-of-school programs have used the guides. In many ways these guides are a great fit for these types of programs, since the guides really are transdisciplinary. It’s an opportunity to bring together social-emotional learning, place-based learning, inquiry-based science, global citizenship, civics, and so many other ideas into one learning experience. This means it is a tremendous addition to what students may be getting during their daily classroom time. It provides a different type of experience, more akin to the organic learning that happens in nonformal environments – which also means that it may engage students who find it difficult to stay focused in a traditional classroom setting.

The guides provide an exciting, hands-on, student-led opportunity that is designed to respond to the student’s lived experiences. We want to encourage young people to critically question and consider why their community and world is the way it is. In the Sustainable Communities! guide, that might mean questions like Why are the houses designed this way in my area? Why do we have buses or a subway system – or why don’t we? Or, Why are some areas built up and others not? The more answers they find, the more they can start to see the world around them not as a foregone conclusion, but as consequences of decisions that can be made in many different ways.

And the good news for out-of-school programs is that these guides are very flexible. They are designed to be customizable – so you can do all the different parts, or just a few, or even just one activity. This means that you can respond to the interests of the groups you are working with. Plus, the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals guides work really well when young people can get out of classrooms and take a more active approach to learning – something that out-of-school programs really excel at!

Y4Y: I think I speak for the whole Y4Y community in saying this is an exciting and challenging new resource available for free to 21st CCLC programs. But I can’t leave it there! I’d love to squeeze any last bits of wisdom I can out of you around using out-of-school time for enriching science education, student-driven learning, or really anything else you think our professionals can take away from our chat today.

HG: I am constantly amazed at the tremendous resiliency, creativity and resourcefulness of today’s youth. The work many of them are already doing to make the world better inspires me. I feel like the 21st CCLC programs provide such an opportunity to give young people the experiences they need to realize how valuable their contribution can be. In my view, every time we create a chance for a young person to do something that adds to positive change, even in a small way, we help build their capacity and desire to take action to transform their world. I believe the biggest gift we can give anyone is to help them realize just how significant their actions can be.

We have been hearing a lot about the anxiety many young people feel in the face of our national and global problems — and that is real. However, I think one thing we can and must do is to help young people move beyond a passive, spectator role when thinking about the enormity of global problems to a role where they help shape their own futures and become transformative problem-solvers. Nurturing that type of community with turned-on, committed young changemakers is so important and I think that is the potential of the 21st CCLC programs. I hope these guides can provide a valuable resource to your listeners in realizing that purpose. And the Smithsonian Science Education Center would be happy to help – so I would encourage any of your listeners to reach out if we can support them in sharing these guides with students.

Download the free Smithsonian Science Education Center research guide for students, Sustainable Communities! How Will We Help Our Community Thrive?

Heidi Gibson works at the Smithsonian Science Education Center and led the development of the Sustainable Communities! guide. She has a background in science, international affairs and education, and authored the book From Ideas to Action: Transforming Learning to Inspire Action on Critical Global Issues.