Thursday, January 26, 2017

Weekly overview - week of January 23

This week, our focus was on the past, present, and future of agriculture in Michigan. We started with two readings on the history of Detroit’s Eastern Market (from Detroit Food by Bill Loomis and Detroit's Eastern Market by Lois Johnson and Margaret Thomas). We also examined and analyzed several facts about Michigan agriculture and thought about what it meant that the average age of a Michigan farmer is 58 years old. This led us to consider the future of farming here in Michigan and around the world. We watched a TED talk on “food computers” by Caleb Harper, director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT, and discussed the idea of “climate recipes” (what was interesting to us, what was exciting to us, and what potential implications could be concerning to us). We ended our study of agriculture in SE Michigan (for this week, anyway) with a fascinating historical tour of Detroit’s Eastern Market, led by Myles Hamby of the Eastern Market Corporation. We also introduced our long-term science project ideas and held a peer-review session where we (under Lisa’s direction) gave one another feedback on said project ideas.

For additional photos of our adventures, check the photo album link on the right-hand side bar.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bread: How it works; how to make it; how it tastes

We kicked off our current interdisciplinary project with an investigation of bread: its role throughout history; the way yeast works; the sensory experience of making it with your own hands; and the joy that comes from sharing it with friends.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weekly overview - week of January 16

During this short week, we turned our focus to historical food narratives. After learning about Mrs. Abby Fisher (a woman who was born a slave in Alabama and eventually became a prominent caterer and cookbook author in California), we browsed through her digitized cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking (published 1881). Our other key area of focus was on the role of food during the Civil Rights Movement (including the Greensboro sit-in; the Black Panther breakfast program; and Georgia Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere). In groups, students read articles about these topics and shared their findings and insights with the class. Our third text for the week was a poem: “The Traveling Onion” by Naomi Shihab Nye. In this poem, the speaker sings the praises of the often overlooked onion and other “small forgotten miracles.” The poem gave us a way to consider the route that food (even that as mundane as an onion) takes to arrive on our plates. Together, this week’s readings and activities gave us opportunities to consider how eating, which is such a personal activity, actually connects us to people and places from far outside of our own immediate communities.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Weekly overview - week of January 9

This week, we started our next big interdisciplinary project that aims to answer the question of how we decide what to eat. We'll be answering this question through a wide variety of lenses, including scientific, historical, cultural-social, and environmental. We began with an episode of Michael Pollan's "Cooked" documentary series (we watched "Air," which explores the way that baking transforms raw ingredients into delicious foods). The show examined the historical significance of bread from the earliest known bakers (Egyptians) through Wonder Bread and artisanal sourdough loaves. Students then did an experiment where they observed the way that sugar affects the growth of yeast. We then baked our own bread (it was delicious) and did some reflective writing on both our sensory observations of the bread making experience and how it felt to be connected to people all over the world, throughout history, who have also made their own bread. Students then snacked on their bread while reading an article from the Journal of Social Psychology about a study that on the impact of ambient smells (from a bakery) on participants’ willingness to help strangers. The results of the study suggest that people are kinder to one another when they smell baked goods. This study gave us a chance to review the steps of the scientific method and the concept of single variable experiments. We will be designing our own single variable experiments (related to this topic of study) later this semester.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Genetic editing; formal debates

In December, the 7-8s spent two weeks preparing for formal debates on two related, yet different topics: genetic editing of mosquitoes (in order to reduce the spread of disease) and genetic editing of salmon (in order to increase the rate of growth). Students were placed onto a team of three people (proposition or opposition) for one of the two topics.

This debate was part of a larger unit of study in ELA and science that asked students to "think like scientists" in order to turn data into evidence by using it to make a claim. In thinking this way, Lisa and I forced students to abandon their own views on various topics (ranging from climate change to genetically modified organisms) in order to develop sound arguments. This is not to say that we do not want them to form their own views on these topics (we absolutely do). However, in this case, we instructed them to suspend their own ideas in order to work through the process of developing an argument using data and research. In several cases, this thought exercise forced students to argue a view that contradicted their own previously held idea, resulting in a broader understanding of and appreciation for diverse perspectives.

In science, in order to support this research, Lisa taught students about DNA and the ways in which scientists are using new methods to "edit" organisms' genetic makeup.

Concurrently, students were also deep into Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion, an award-winning science fiction novel about biotechnology, bioethics, and cloning. Thinking about the possible future of genetic modification (even in a fictional world) gave students a larger sense of possible implications of these decisions and forced them to think through their arguments on a deeper level.

As part of our preparation for the debate, students generated a list of ideas about what "tugs" at each side of the issue and the many stakeholders to consider. The result of our lively class discussion is below:

In addition to research on their debate topics, preparation for the debates included a significant amount of work on public speaking skills. They watched and critiqued a sample debate, brainstormed effective speaking habits, and rehearsed their speeches for one another. 

Each student was responsible for flowcharting the debate of the other group and, based on their understanding of effective argument, rebuttal, and counterargument, judging the merits of each team's presentation in order to determine a winner. 

Examples of student debate flowcharts

In both cases, the opposition sides won their debates. However, credit must be given to the proposition teams for coming up with thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling arguments in favor of genetic editing of organisms.

Students have already asked Karl and me when we'll be able to debate again. I suppose that means that debate, as a class activity, was a winner.