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Over the 17 years I have taught high school chemistry, the challenges in education have become more acute — even before the pandemic we were scrambling to provide our students with meaningful instruction online and to find ways to get all our students to actively engage in learning.

I teach at a public Title I school, where one-sixth of students identify as English Language Learners. I want them to think, become confident in expressing themselves and see real-life value in what I teach.

Four years ago, I found my game-changer: a design-based, cross-curricular learning methodology rooted in principles of social justice and the physical world. It assumes what I have found to be true: that all types of learners have the capacity to become creative and critical thinkers.

To deliver the science curriculum through this design thinking methodology, I open the first day of any class I teach by having my students build never-before-seen creature-avatars using found materials and introduce themselves by sharing how the materials they used represent them in some way.

I then have them imagine, roughly build and run a “Starter City of the Future,” based on a map of our own community, for their avatars to live in.

Over the school year, their city is shaped and refined through their original, three-dimensional solutions to my sequence of increasingly complex, criteria-driven Design Challenges. Each challenge is followed by guided lessons, textbook study and research.

I found my game-changer: a design-based, cross-curricular learning methodology rooted in principles of social justice and the physical world.

When pandemic lockdowns gave us remote learning, I didn’t see at first how this methodology requiring hands-on activity and in-person collaboration could work online. Most students were stuck hiding from the view of their cameras, or not participating at all, so I asked them to step away from their computers to find materials that they could manipulate. I provided them a criteria list with the needs they had to meet in their design and then let them build. When they came back with their home-made avatars, they were excited to show and explain what they had done. They listened and watched each other. They participated.

The designs were then used to make connections to themes in our material. For example, we planned an online Valentine’s Dance for our avatars. A dance is similar to types of chemical reactions, and the students wrote stories about events that happened at the dance as they pertained to what happens in chemical reactions.

During the pandemic, and in the years before, these student-built cities have become evolving, contextual environments for the standards-aligned and required curriculum, propelled by a subject- and concept-related storyline of my devising. Students aren’t graded on how their built objects look. What matters is that students’ avatars are original, that the students can justify how the objects meet my Design Challenge criteria and describe how they will function in the city.

I deepen students’ involvement by having them govern, elect a mayor, role-play city jobs and serve on council districts and commissions to address such issues as environmental waste and pollution. They bring their solutions to the class at large for further discussion.

Related: OPINION: Students will move forward post-pandemic if we give them new pathways and opportunities

Some undoubtedly will question what governing a city has to do with chemistry class. Yet having students run their city has proven to be an invaluable framework for subject-related discussions and practice in consensus-building as they identify and solve problems. It also enhances the natural integration of cross-curricular and social skills: writing, oral presentations, communication and collaboration — skills scientists need.

The Design Challenge process allows me to add a few surprise twists: I confronted one class with an unexpected “catastrophic event” in their starter city by burning it. They were shocked at first, then intrigued, peppering me with questions about what I had done and why.

This gave me the opportunity to find out what they already knew about combustion as a prelude to guided lessons about chemical reactions and elements involved in combustion and climate change. After a lively discussion in their city council districts, I had them come together to vote on equitable ways to rebuild the city to ensure that it would be safer for all.

In the process, I reinforced their willingness to persevere in the face of my manufactured crisis and guided them to make the connection that, just as their tabletop city is a system, so is their classroom — and their community and the natural and man-made world at large. This has all provided me with ample fodder for future lessons.

With this methodology, the students are democratically solving issues and reacting to problems in a systematic way. It’s not only the best builders or most outspoken students who succeed but the entire class. We get to admire creative individuals, foster everyone’s leadership qualities and reach all students.

Related: OPINION: Don’t count teachers out of school redesign

One of my biggest takeaways has been to observe how vital it is for students to feel that the original objects they build, whether “pretty” or not, have purpose in a shared space, even in a virtual setting.

My students inevitably develop a sense of ownership for the “never-before-seen” objects that they design, and those objects become tangible reminders of what they’ve learned. Building, refining and governing a “City of the Future” over the school year deepens students’ awareness that information is reusable in school and in real life, and, just as important to me, this equitable method of “academic play” breaks down barriers to participation.

 As my students learn to collaborate, discuss ideas, practice giving oral presentations and write about how their designs connect to content, standards and guided lessons, I love seeing even my shy students find their voices and share their thinking. I think it is important to give students an opportunity to present themselves to the class, talking about something they made, not something they read about.

I am beyond gratified that collected data from district test results have shown a significant increase in my students’ test scores, attendance and engagement. It gives me hope for the future.

David Cameron teaches high school chemistry and computer science:python at Gabrielino High School in the San Gabriel (CA) Unified School District. The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning informs his teaching practice.

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