Some students are naturally inclined to look at the wide world inquisitively. And some subjects, be it foreign languages, international relations or anthropology, have an inherently international twist. Mt. Lebanon High School Spanish teacher Sue Quintero recognized that some students sought out these classes on their own, crafting an international studies path through high school. Social studies teacher Tina Raspanti, unit principal Erin Crimone, and other educators noticed the same pattern. They eventually formed a larger committee that designed Mt. Lebanon High School’s new global studies program. Launched this school year, the program seeks to give students the tools to become global, active citizens before they’ve even graduated from high school. Those who complete the program receive certificates.
The program is more than a checklist of classes to take. It also requires out-of-class activities, such as attending global studies lectures at the University of Pittsburgh or participating in internationally focused clubs like Amnesty International. And it requires community service. There is a global scholars track for very keen students; this involves a yearlong research project, as well as mentorship from participating faculty.
Raspanti researched global studies programs in high schools and universities across the country and then worked with the committee to individualize the program for Mt. Lebanon. “We didn’t want it to just be a stamp; we really wanted it to be an enriching experience for the students,” she says.
The interest in the course of study was already evident, says Quintero. To make it a formal certificate program, “It just needed to be placed in a framework and enhanced by a few other things,” she says.
Business and professional people endorsed their idea. When the committee asked potential employers what they wanted in college graduates and what was lacking, says Quintero, “It didn’t matter the discipline—whether it was a highly technological area, a medical area or elsewhere—what was sought after and really visibly lacking was this thing: global citizenship.”
This message resonated and mobilized the program when Crimone and social studies teacher Julianne Slogick attended the Pennsylvania Council for International Education conference in fall 2013. The harsh answer they heard when people asked, “Would you hire our kids?” was “No.” Employers said they want more than just proficiency in a skill set; they want employees with knowledge of the world.
The response from Mt. Lebanon parents has been overwhelmingly positive, Raspanti says. Jonathan Hill, Vernon Drive, father of two freshmen enrolled in the global studies program, is a writer and teacher with a background in international economics and government. Not surprisingly, he thinks it’s fantastic to give students a well-rounded worldview before they hone in on a course of study in college or a particular skill set in the workforce. “While life’s experiences such as travel are critical, having a solid grounding in understanding how the world works as presented in the classroom can benefit everyone. Globalization in particular, though often misunderstood, will have an impact on virtually all careers going forward,” Hill says.
The program’s out-of-classroom hours come from a variety of sources, including one-day seminars at the University of Pittsburgh, which can offer college credit in addition to satisfying the global studies program requirements.
Veronica Dristas, assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center has worked closely with the committee. “You need this knowledge to be the next bank teller; you need it to be the next CEO; you need it to be the next teacher, the next professor,” she says. “It’s a skill that no matter what profession you’re in, you need it.” The two-tiered aspect of Mt. Lebanon High School’s program was inspired by the University of Pittsburgh’s certificate and degree programs, which also have varying levels of intensity.
The program is still in its infancy—only one section of the intro to global studies class is under way—so students who have committed haven’t yet reaped the benefits. But there is enthusiasm for what lies ahead. Katie Gunzenhauser, a ninth grader, plans to take the introductory class next year and continue with her Spanish classes, where she was introduced to the program. “I want to be able to see the whole world through new eyes and get a better understanding of it,” she says. Hill’s daughter Meredith, also a ninth grader, cites her family’s travel experiences as the biggest reason she’s interested in international studies and is excited about the opportunities the program will give her in years to come.
Water Design Challenge
The original vision already has evolved beyond the global studies program. Dristas encouraged everyone to dream big, which eventually led to the Water Design Challenge, a two-day, immersive interscholastic event funded by a grant from the non-profit Sprout Fund. Students teamed with students from other school districts to solve real-world water challenges. In March, 55 Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high school students spent two days at Pitt working in mixed teams of eight to 10 addressing problems such as, “Some experts suggest the next world war will be fought over water. How might we educate Pittsburghers about current global water hotspots and conflicts?”
“It’s an exercise at solving a real world problem, unlike anything they’ve ever done,” Quintero says.”
The faculty team wanted to pose real life challenges, and water seemed the natural answer. Says Quintero, “It doesn’t matter where you go; water is always an issue. Too much, not enough, clean, not clean, can I shower? We tried to isolate four important issues that should concern people in this area, even if they hadn’t thought about it before.”
The students spent the months leading up to the challenge working through educational modules online: fracking, bottled water versus tap, sanitation (think toilets), and conflict and water. Information gleaned online gave students a solid background in water issues before the big event.
As part of the timed challenge, 24 professionals volunteered to talk about water issues. These experts included engineers, Pennsylvania American Water employees, geologists, wastewater treatment facility managers and entrepreneurs who started micro businesses in third world countries.
Mary Ellen Ramage, who works for Etna Borough, helped redesign the main street’s rainwater system, creating decorative, covered “rivers” next to the sidewalks that funnel water back into the earth. Students brainstormed with her, among others. After workshops, research and interviews, students finalized their concepts and presented possible solutions.
Mixing the school districts was intentional, Dristas says: “This is the great experiment too—for [students] to work with people they’re not used to working with… Maybe in the future they won’t solve water problems, but they’ll have that experience of working in a team, solving a problem, and within a time limit, too.”
The event revealed that students were enthusiastic and passionate about water—a topic they’d known little to nothing of a few months ago. Raspanti says it exceeded her expectations, and the students can’t say enough good things about it. Lily Robertson calls the Water Design Challenge a “great educational experience.” Catrina Schick says it was “a different opportunity” than what she’s usually offered. Shane Hackett says it made him realize that “empathy is key” in solving not just water problems but anything with extensive ramifications.
The Water Design Challenge promotes the kind of thinking Raspanti wants to foster in Mt. Lebanon students, and in particular, through the international studies program. “I hope they see connections between their own lives and the lives of others in the world. If my students can learn that their perspective isn’t the only perspective, they’re better off. If they can simply see that… everybody’s experiences are different. That doesn’t mean they’re better or worse. Just widen your lens… If we value each other like that, that’s the first step of every other connection in business.”
Quintero shares her colleague’s hopes. “There are people… who think that critical thinking has gone by the wayside. [In Mt. Lebanon], we’re still promoting it, and kids are still employing it. It’s taking processes like design thinking and giving kids the opportunity, the experiences to apply those things to create positive change and make them more responsible, global, active citizens.”