Ohio’s opioid-abuse crisis is a growing problem, and many schools statewide have taken up the design challenge posed by the Ohio STEM Learning Network and the Ohio Department of Education to devise solutions. In central Ohio, an entire school is working on it. At Ridgeview STEM Junior High in the Pickerington Local district, students have been divided into teams to research answers. Having more than 900 students — plus teachers — involved in one project can pose logistical, and other, challenges. But it also can produce surprising results. To tell us how the effort is going, we contacted Eileen McGarvey, a counselor at the school:
Q: What prompted Ridgeview’s participation in the challenge to solve Ohio’s opioid-abuse crisis?
A: The opioid epidemic that is plaguing Ohio impacts everyone, even junior high students in the suburbs. As part of a recent safety series, we spent an entire day educating students about the dangers of drug addiction by presenting guest speakers, including former addicts, addiction counselors and police officers, and a movie produced by the FBI. In the past, Ridgeview was given the challenge by our community to create a campaign to address the drug problem in Pickerington.
We think that it is essential not only to educate our students about the dangers they face, but also about what is happening around them and, critically, to feel they can make a change.
Many students struggle in school because they cannot make a connection with academic information that seems irrelevant. In fact, our students are capable of tackling big problems and creating tangible results that can change lives.
Q: How many students and staff members are participating?
A: Our school has more than 900 students on seven teams with 28 team teachers who primarily oversaw the challenge. Each team chose when and how to give their students the time and resources to approach this problem.
Most divided students into groups of three to five who worked during a period of the school day dedicated to enrichment and intervention. Other teams brought these challenges into the classroom, linking real-world issues with academic content. One team used its social studies classes to work on the problem, making a connection between this immediate threat and the patterns of culture that they read about in school.
Linking academic content to authentic issues makes the importance of research, discussion, writing and implementing immediately apparent in a way that research papers and presentations cannot. Students weren’t lectured about such things as checking references and citing credible sources — they learned these lessons through trial and error as they spent weeks researching and discussing information.
Our students know that the internet is not always right. They know that the most accurate research might not be in textbooks. They know that speakers might have perspectives that can impact their information. They have learned to think critically and ask questions. They know that the first answer one finds isn’t necessarily the best or most accurate.
We are proud of the way that students have not only learned about the drug abuse crisis, but also about reading and writing and thinking. We are also proud about the passion they have shown as they worked — this was not an assignment that they were required to work on after school, but many groups devoted their free time to creating their products.
Q: How are the students tackling this challenge?
A: Most have focused on awareness campaigns — educating anyone who might be vulnerable to drug abuse as well as their loved ones. They have researched and compiled resources such as names of counselors and treatment centers. They have created campaigns that educate peers about the risks of opiates as well as the ways in which they might help others who struggle with addiction or other risky behaviors.
Many students utilize a form of communication that they have mastered — social media. Many have created unique social-media accounts on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. As these accounts increase in exposure and popularity, the students plan to use the attention of their peers to reach an audience beyond the school and community.
Other students have tried to go beyond an awareness campaign. One group, for example, saw the need to stop the use of opiates that put others at risk. They are planning a Breathalyzer-type of device that can respond immediately to the presence of drugs in the body. Others have created products that they hope would aid those who work daily with people in crisis.
Q: What resources, both within the school and in the community, are students using?
A: When giving the students this challenge, we purposefully did not recommend one resource over another. Instead, by presenting it to them in the most general terms, we wanted the students to seek out information and resources. Students learn about drug abuse in school through classes such as health and science, but no one limited himself or herself to this kind of information.
Many students used online resources, but others reached out to multiple sources. Many groups contacted the police to fully understand aspects of the crisis. Others reached out to awareness groups such as Tyler’s Light, an organization founded by the parents of a Pickerington student who fatally overdosed several years ago. Still others approached treatment facilities and counseling centers, politicians and lawmakers, and dozens of groups conducted interviews within the school and beyond to fully appreciate the scope of the challenge.
The most important resources that our students received were the time to work and the encouragement of the entire school, which came together to tackle this problem.
Q: So far, what do you think students have learned?
A: Beyond learning the frightening facts and figures of the problem, our students have learned about themselves.
Some students began this challenge with the idea that, considering it’s such a huge, real-world crisis, there was little seventh- and eighth-grade students could do to impact anyone. Others were frustrated by the lack of instruction — they wanted to be told what the answer should look like, what specifically they were supposed to do. These students came to learn that not only are they capable of making a change, they also will be judged as a success or a failure on the creatively unique way in which they came at the problem.
Some teams encouraged their students to decide how to help individual victims and families. Others worked to provide alternatives for potential drug abusers to prevent them from becoming addicted.
Having the entire school of 900 students work on this problem made the students take it seriously. It created a culture of discussion where everyone brainstormed and developed ideas that looked at different aspects. Some students and teachers took the challenge more seriously than others, but by having the entire school work on the problem created a platform for everyone to delve deeply.
It is also wonderful to see the impact of project-based learning on student engagement. Because students determined the focus and direction of their products and weren’t bound by specific limitations, the products they created are original and reflect the students. While we believe that they are learning critical things about the drug crisis, and the research and design processes, they are also learning to use their creativity and ingenuity to approach problems.
Q: In leading this project, what have staff members learned?
A: Giving students the chance to work on an open-ended project allows teachers to see them in a new light. Students who get the best grades might struggle with this kind of challenge, because they might want to be told exactly what the outcome should be to be successful. Students who might not typically be the best performers or most interested in academic content can come up with the best out-of-the-box ideas and show the most creativity.
This design challenge was a struggle for some teachers as well — it can be difficult to have this much freedom and allow students to explore such a serious topic without structure. Many teachers struggled over how to direct students or how to encourage those who weren’t putting in much effort.
One of the best aspects of the design challenge, from the teachers’ perspective, was learning about their students. The opioid crisis touches people from all walks of life, and many students have shared their own experiences about how drugs have impacted them. Students have opened up in a way that they might not have in other settings.
It has also given teachers a way to understand their students better, especially students who don’t engage in traditional assignments in the same way that they might participate in an open-ended project.
Q: Will students present their findings to their peers, and possibly to the community? Will a “best” solution be chosen?
A: The students first present to their Enrichment/Intervention section (roughly a classroom of students). Next, they present to their entire team (about 120 or so students). The teams then send the most promising or unique projects to present to a panel of school personnel who further narrow down the projects.
These finalists take the feedback they’ve gotten from all of their judges and present to a community panel (including police officers, treatment counselors, awareness groups, local government and business officials, and leaders in our school district), who will choose the top winners.
With a complex question such as the opiate challenge, labeling one solution as the “best” is extremely difficult. We anticipate that we will take ideas from the top teams to combine into well-rounded, comprehensive products.
Q: Would you recommend such a project to other schools? What advice would you offer?
A: I would absolutely recommend this project to other schools. I think we are all surprised at the ideas students can create when given the opportunity to solve real-world problems. We can be impressed by the students who rise as leaders in this type of situation, especially because it gives students who might not typically see success a chance to shine.
You need to consider so many aspects: When will students work? Will they choose their own groups, or will they be grouped by teachers? How often do you check in with students to make sure they are getting the support and focus they need? How can you tie the project in with classroom content?
Such an undertaking requires planning and buy-in. Schools must consider how to present the project to students to give them a chance to understand the scope of this crisis. Teachers must understand that success in a project such as this will look differently to different students, and how to give students the freedom and encouragement to try new things.