Globally Competent

From Boston to Botswana, developing truly effective cross-border collaborations.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marisa Wolsky

CREDIT DesignSquadAs we face the beginning of the 21st century, economists and government agencies are putting forth an urgent call for a new engineering workforce. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that technical skills alone aren’t enough to compete in a global economy. The call for equipping young people with the skills and dispositions necessary to live in today’s world—defined by the digital revolution and unprecedented human migration—is dominating educational discourse. The National Research Council, for example, has deemed American students’ lack of knowledge about other countries a “critical shortcoming,” and has voiced its strong support for the teaching of other cultures, particularly at the K-12 level. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a plan to strengthen U.S. education and advance U.S. international priorities, including developing global competencies and engagement with other countries for all students.

What does the process in which students work collaboratively across distance and cultures look like?

What are the abilities students need to develop in order to become globally competent? Drawing from the capacities defined by the CCSSO: Ed-Steps Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning and Project Zero-Harvard University’s Global Thinking Routines, these include the ability to:

  • Investigate the world: develop an interest in people and places around the globe
  • Understand that people live in different environments and have different resources
  • Recognize different perspectives—both their own and those of others, and how these perspectives can change over time
  • Listen to and communicate with different audiences, treating them with empathy and respect

One way for students to develop these abilities is through projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. The J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative, designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens, is one such project. WGBH’s Design Squad Global is also creating virtual communities (Design Squad Global Clubs) where eight-to-13-year-olds in out-of-school programs around the world work together to solve real-world problems. By collaborating on engineering issues that are meaningful and socially relevant to people from different parts of the world, the young engineers and inventors in these clubs begin to discover that they are global citizens who can take action and make a difference in the world.

What does the process in which students work collaboratively across distance and cultures look like? In Design Squad Global Clubs, students at the Phatsimong Youth Centre in Gaborone, Botswana were matched with students at the Promise Neighborhood afterschool program in Boston, Massachusetts. Over the course of 10 weeks, they worked together to identify needs in their communities that could be addressed through engineering solutions. At the Phatsimong Youth Centre: “Botswana has the second highest prevalence of HIV in the world…Youth are still dying because of poor medication adherence. Youth don’t take their medication for a variety of reasons, including side effects and forgetfulness. Due to this, one of our groups was inspired to make a pill reminder.” At Promise Neighborhood: “We’re [designing] a homemade air conditioner that can be used without electricity. We chose this because in Boston the weather can be temperamental, and most buildings do not have central air conditioning because it is too expensive and not needed all year round.”

With the increased globalization of our world, this is an ideal time to develop projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. 

Throughout the process, the students in Boston and Botswana answered cultural questions and shared interests. The students were very surprised that they were more similar than different. Students in Botswana learned that students in Boston did not use expensive materials in their engineering projects, but used recycled materials like they did. (They had thought that “the kids in Boston would be better than us.”) They also didn’t expect the Boston students to like their invention, saying it felt “amazing” to get positive feedback from them on their design. The students in Boston were interested to know that the students in Botswana spoke English and had access to different kinds of materials for building than they did. They also appreciated the different and interesting approaches to engineering the students in Botswana took.

With the increased globalization of our world, this is an ideal time to develop projects that connect U.S. students to their peers in other countries. Developing truly effective international collaborations requires that we build an evidence base about when and how to acknowledge and accommodate differences both across and within cultures. WGBH would welcome hearing about other promising practices in cross-cultural collaboration to both to improve the Design Squad Global Club model and to inform the field.

Marisa Wolsky is an Executive Producer at WGBH Educational Foundation with over 20 years of experience turning STEM content into entertaining and educational media and curricular resources for kids and their educators.

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