When Todd Miller, IT Specialist at St. Joseph’s Christian school began teaching Global Problem Solvers (GPS): The Series to his 5th and 6th grade classes, he didn’t know what to expect. He soon discovered that small things can have a big impact.
St. Joseph’s is a small private school serving just under 350 students in grades Pre K – 12. The town of St. Joseph, Mo. is small too with a quaint, historic downtown, quiet suburbs and a population of nearly 80,000. When Todd began teaching at the school after 15 years in the U.S. Air Force, he knew one thing for sure – he really wanted to make a difference.
Todd’s school was already using Cisco Networking Academy, an IT education program that is available for free to learning institutions worldwide, which is how he found out about the new GPS: The Series program.
“When I first saw GPS: The Series, it reminded me of the Captain Planet cartoon I watched growing up,” says Todd. “I had a feeling that the students would like it, so I shared it with the administration to get their input.”
GPS: The Series is designed to introduce middle school students to social entrepreneurship, with a special focus on how they can use technology to create solutions to seemingly intractable problems. After the administration reviewed it, they decided to offer the program over a semester with Todd teaching one lesson every two weeks to his 5th and 6th grade classes, with the Networking Academy high school students serving as mentors.
Todd started with Season 1: Working Well, where the Global Problem Solver team has to come up with a way to ensure clean drinking water after wells break down in Malawi, Africa.
“I had them brainstorm the primary and secondary impacts of it, for example preventing girls from going to school, as well as its causes,” he explains. “It really forced them to expand their thinking. It’s easy to just think of the obvious effects of a problem, but it’s another to think about it holistically and The Series helped them to do that.”
Inspired by the program, Todd then asked his kids to identify a world problem and research it. What surprised him was how quickly the activity became cross-curricular. The students started talking about and researching their problems outside of his class, asking all types of questions in their math, social studies, and computer classes.
The students tackled tough problems like bullying, terrorism, world hunger, endangered species, and hurricanes: problems that don’t have simple or easy answers. But although they were excited about addressing these problems, Todd got some resistance at first when he asked students to come up with tangible solutions.
“When I first gave them the assignment, I got a lot of ‘I can’t.’ I think it’s a natural reaction to big problems – they can be so overwhelming. So I asked them to identify ways they could make a dent in the problem, explaining if they can do it, then someone else can do it too,” he says. “I think that’s the great thing about GPS. It gets kids thinking and excited about what they can do.”
After his students had identified their solutions, Todd then used the Business Plan portion of the GPS: The Series Teacher’s Guide and asked them to develop an elevator pitch and presentation about their problem, including what resources they needed to start fixing them. When word got out about the presentations, they turned into a school-wide event complete with the local TV station, community leaders, and elected officials in attendance.
“It was just amazing how it evolved. It got bigger than anyone thought it would,” says Todd. “We started in mid-September and by December we had these amazing presentations. No one had any clue how it was going to impact our kids or the other teachers.”
The program was so effective that the school decided to make Global Problem Solvers: The Series a permanent part of its 5th grade curriculum. And the 6th graders who went through the program will be presenting their solutions to local problems later this year to the town’s community foundation, which will then provide funding for the solutions they think are viable.
“This shook our school so much you will not believe. It changed our students’ mindsets,” Todd explains.
“We have people who are hungry in our town. We have people who are bullied in our town. And Global Problem Solvers: The Series helped open my students’ eyes to these problems and decide what they can do as individuals to make things better.”