Technology Links BHS Students to International Discussion
Juniors in a Baldwin High School class participated Thursday in an emergency-response simulation that linked Pittsburgh-area schools to ones in the nations of Canada, Georgia and Pakistan.
Typically, if a high-school student responded to the obligatory parental question, “What did you do in school today?” by saying, “I was on Twitter for four hours,” he or she might have some explaining to do.
But for 14 juniors at Baldwin High School on Thursday, March 3, that response would be more than acceptable.
An Advanced Placement U.S. History class at Baldwin participated in “International Student Summit: International Responses to Natural Disasters,” a collaborative videoconference organized by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, on Thursday. Approximately 500 students from 15 schools—including ones in the nations of Canada, Georgia and Pakistan—were linked in to discuss global strategies for responding to natural disasters.
The summit, which ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., made use of video technology and popular social-media platforms like Twitter to foster global teamwork in responding to a simulated crisis: an earthquake in Haiti similar to the one that that nation experienced in January 2010.
According to Kate Presto, who teaches the Baldwin history class, the experience enabled students to step outside of their usually rigid AP curriculum to address issues through a broader lens.
“We’re very used to looking at things from an American perspective,” Presto said. “I think it really encourages students to think globally.”
The timeliness of the discussion also added a different dimension, she said.
“[Natural disasters are] something we’ve looked at from a historical perspective in this class but never from a current perspective,” she said.
In a classroom tucked behind the stacks of the high school’s library, the students sat at a horseshoe-table arrangement facing a whiteboard where a projector displayed a live video feed from Hampton High School, which hosted the event. Schools participating remotely, as Baldwin did, set up video cameras in their classrooms and appeared in smaller boxes bordering the screen.
The event started off with a panel discussion including Anne C. Richard, vice president of government relations and advocacy for the Washington, D.C.-based International Rescue Committee, and Dr. Louise Comfort, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management in that university’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
In her opening remarks, Richard stressed the need for multilateral coordination in responding to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and flooding.
“Experts tell us that there’s an expectation that the number of people affected by natural disasters is going to increase in the coming years,” Richard told the students.
Economically powerful, or “donor,” nations, such as the United States, have a responsibility to respond to these disasters, she said, adding that globalization increases the degree to which foreign crises affect people in America.
“We have to be there for a transition from relief to development to prevent the return to crisis conditions,” she said.
Comfort said that international response to disasters can often be overwhelming and that the most important aspect of multilateral response is crafting a certain division of labor, or “cluster system.”
In keeping with that cluster system, schools then broke off and collaborated on specific tasks to address the simulated disaster. Baldwin teamed up with Hampton and The American Academy, based in Tbilisi, Georgia, to create a strategy for providing shelter.
When one group needed to obtain information or coordinate with another, students exchanged ideas via Twitter.
Brian Ackermann, a participating Baldwin junior, said that he picks up on world events occasionally when his parents watch news broadcasts. Ackermann might not follow world news everyday, he said, but natural disasters draw him into the conversation.
“I think it is interesting to hear the opinions of people all over the world,” Ackermann said of the event. “They think a lot differently than we do.”
When panelists fielded questions earlier from students, the Americans tended to focus on how best to organize relief efforts, while students from Pakistan and Georgia addressed concerns about government corruption and allocation of relief aid.
“This is a really unique experience for them,” Presto said. While students are familiar with social media like Skype and Twitter, she added, “They’re not nearly as used to using technology for connecting to people globally.”
With all of the technology involved, the event wasn’t without minor hang-ups. Early in the cluster session, a technical difficulty with audio prevented the Georgian school from sharing its ideas with Baldwin and Hampton. But the issue was resolved quickly.
Tim Winner, director of technology for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, sat in the back of the library classroom with both a laptop and desktop computer in front of him. Throughout the summit, he communicated through Skype with other schools’ tech specialists, making minor adjustments to things like camera lighting.
“There was a lot of preparation coming up to this event,” Winner said, mentioning an equipment test the previous week. “It’s been very, very smooth.”
While the event wasn’t typical of a normal school day, he added, educators are making use of technology more often these days.
The way Winner explains it, students engage with technology “as consumers” to such an extent that it becomes part of their “social construct.” And if educators don’t keep pace, schools will fall out of the hyperreality in which today’s students live and interact.
That technological interactivity doesn’t come without regulation, he added, but, as Thursday’s event showed, technology can empower students educationally, especially for research.
“The information is out there,” Winner said. “We need to teach our kids how to find that information.”