Learning out Loud
From Learning to Legacy: Using Science to Change the World
Last spring, midway through May, stickers the size of salad plates began appearing on bathroom mirrors around BSS. Against solid coloured backdrops, the typewriter lettering offered various motivational messages, including “Change the way you see, not the way you look” and “Make health more important than weight.” An informational leaflet on the door of the bathrooms provided some context, namely, the harmful consequences of laxative abuse on bodily functions.
While the source of the awareness campaign wasn’t overtly indicated, this was hardly a guerilla-style operation. Rather, it was the culmination of Monika STEGER ’15’s Legacy Project. Like all other students taking Grade 12 chemistry, she was fulfilling the action plan based on research she had conducted over several months.
The Legacy Project, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Senior School biology and chemistry teacher Genny Lee. With the support, guidance and participation of department colleague Stephanie Beamish, she drew from the work she had produced as part of her recently completed Masters degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. At the core of Ms. Lee’s findings: students today field an overwhelming amount of information, often without sufficient skills to process truth from falsehood. Moreover, those emboldened to speak up or do something are often led to believe they are too young or unqualified to make a difference. Teachers, therefore, have an increasing responsibility to help students to better process and engage in the world around them. The central question is ‘why does science matter?’ Asking this encourages students to look at chemistry through a social justice lense.
The assignment she designed, which fits within the guidelines of the AP expectations, unfolds as a “unit” of classes that immerses students in various methods of research and investigation to develop their critical skills as independent thinkers.
“This is their training ground to become active members of society; research had shown that these students can actually make a difference now. And it’s important for them to consider these issues and start acting
upon them, even in small ways,” explains Ms. Lee. “So we wanted to give them license and agency to go ahead and actually do something – but they had to make sure their research was sound.”
In November 2014, when the Legacy Project made its official debut (a trial run took place the previous spring), Ms. Lee presented a video on Chinese factory workers poisoned with benzene, a cancer-causing organic chemical compound. Students were then encouraged to question the validity of what they had seen and whether supplementary documents helped corroborate or contradict the information.
If this exercise strikes as relevant yet relatively standard, it was merely the tip of the iceberg. The students then learned they would be selecting an issue that had some connection to chemistry – whether environmental, social, health or economic concerns – from which they would propose a course of action as their legacy to the school.
Whereas some students focused on beauty products such as hair dye, others explored the ongoing impact of oil spills or revisited the widely contested link between cellphones and cancer (especially given that the girls often place their phones in the breast pocket of their uniform shirts). Monika, for instance, arrived at her topic after watching a documentary on laxative abuse, knowing how this can be fairly common among young women. In addition to what she learned about the health implications, she says she felt buoyed by the way the BSS community responded to the stickers. One student even posted a selfie in front of the mirror to Instagram.
“I wanted to do something that people could relate to. I think that whether or not people in the community have experienced this first-hand, I think maybe they know someone who has and maybe it has crossed their minds once or twice,” says Monika, who was the Nation house head in Grade 11 and the head ambassador prefect in her final year. “I wanted to make people think about it realistically and in a negative light.”
For Maria Altshuller, who was in Ms. Lee’s Grade 11 class last year, the assignment seemed understandably daunting. But then, so was the topic that she ultimately elected to pursue: toxic toys in Russia, where she was born. After gathering supporting evidence, she used her March Break to discuss the problem with locals who were aware of the dangers, yet said these were the only toys they could afford to buy. To confirm her suspicions, she purchased toys from a market in Moscow and had them tested at a lab (her mother is a physicist and called in a favour). Indeed, two of the four toys exceeded acceptable lead levels as determined by the government. She wrote a letter to the local councilperson and, as she tells it, received a response one month later thanking her for bringing the issue to their attention.
Maria underscores how she came away from the assignment feeling entirely empowered – and how the project speaks to the “ambition” of the school’s curriculum.
Ms. Lee points out how any initial trepidation felt among students soon dissipated; as their research deepened, so too did their confidence. “I think because they had to do
this on their own, there was a lot more ownership of their work. Throughout the process,
I had interviews with them to challenge their thinking, playing devil’s advocate. By the end, they really knew where they stood on the issue – and why.”
And yet, she acknowledges that the undertaking was not a guaranteed success, which made last year’s outcome even more gratifying. “I was blown away at the work they did, in addition to what they accomplished; I think the most powerful part for me was seeing that they believed that they could make a difference.”
This notion of real science and its potential for a significant ripple effect contributed to Ms. Lee positioning the assignment as a legacy that the students leave to the school. Certainly Monika, who is now pursuing
sciences at Queen’s University, notes how future students stand to benefit greatly from taking on the project, especially if they choose a subject that is of genuine interest. “It helped us have a broader perspective on what we’re learning – and how little things we do now may actually have greater impact in future than we think they might.”
As Maria puts it, “The goal of BSS, as I understand it, is to inspire girls who will be global citizens, who will take their education and actually make a difference in the world. And these types of projects really demonstrate how that mission statement is applied in practice; they allow us to take what we’ve learned and make a real difference.” When asked whether she considered her mission complete, the Grade 12 student replies.
“I’m not sure; a couple years down the road, I may repeat the experiment in Russia. Maybe I’ll go to another market and see if anything has changed. But I know I’m really interested and invested in this.”
By Amy Verner
Amy Verner is a lifestyle journalist who divides her time between Paris and Toronto. She attended BSS between 1984–95.