Thinking as citizens: systems design by Year 9 students

December 2017. With locals living across town and country, students at Cambridge High School found plenty of context for their big ideas about transport.

Designs for an electric self-driving mini-bus with accessibility ramps, and a board game about transport options were the big ideas by a group of students who led their own learning.

The five Year 9 students at Cambridge High School – Gracyn, Caimin, Vanya, Mikayla and Nick – pulled off their project during lunch times and after school. They submitted their final presentation to the NZ Transport Agency’s Future Transport Competition, where it earned a commendation.

Competition judges noted “the extent of this team’s research and outreach to the community,” and said the project “presents an authentic investigation into local transport needs.”

As the students and their two supporting teachers talk to this writer, there is an infectious good humour and enthusiasm that starts to explain their achievement.

The students say they enjoyed hearing each other’s ideas and finding a common direction. Put simply, they enjoyed the chance to collaborate. Plus, as they joke more than once, they were also bribed by Ms Kite with chocolate biscuits.

Social studies teacher Jane Kite and science teacher Edward Walthew acted as advisors, helping the students access information as needed. The students presented their final ideas during social science class and, critically, had to respond on the spot to questions from their peers.

Before then, they took several steps to investigate public transport in Cambridge and to develop their ideas – see sidebar.

Jane and Edward say they were impressed with the range of ideas.

“Lots of ideas emerged from the group asking questions,” says Jane. “There was a lot of problem solving and critical thinking with these ideas as they came up.”

For example, Edward says Nick asked how people would get the last kilometres home from bus routes, and came up with the idea of solar-powered bikes that dock at charging stations attached to bus stops.

“It was really interesting to see how they could solve the problems,” says Edward. “By doing a project like this, they see the practical application of things they learn in class. They begin to see that school provides a foundation of learning, but you can build onto it yourself.”

Jane adds that students seeing themselves as part of the community is highly relevant for social studies outcomes.

Learning to learn

The path to self-directed learning was not straight-forward. The students had an initial meeting at school with a council officer, but upon later reflection they felt they should have prepared more. So, they had a second attempt – coming up with questions to send via email.

Jane: “We saw the kind of thinking that’s described by the key competencies and that will help them after school. They were learning life skills.”

Edward: “It’s students applying what they do at school. They had to integrate it all.”