School Curriculum: The NYT

Why do we send our kids to school? Why did our parents send us to school? People are wondering this more than ever, now that many schools are still closed physically and have moved to an online educational experience. But it’s not a new question and will stay with us (likely to a considerably smaller degree) after the pandemic is over.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I was born three months before the start of WWII in Warsaw, Poland and my early childhood was dominated by my Holocaust experiences (namely, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen). But I was fortunate to be liberated by American soldiers in 1945. I was six weeks short of my sixth birthday. Soon after I turned six, I was able to start school in Israel (Palestine at the time)—a pretty normal starting age. I don’t think I would be the same person if I had started school later, for example at age 12.

Now that I teach in a college, we are constantly wondering: what do students, parents, and society in general expect us to provide in our education?

I see the educational experience as a necessary ingredient in preparing students for the future. On one side, students need to master certain skills in order to pursue various employment opportunities. On the other, we also regard education as key to helping make our students happy and productive individuals prepared to face the future. Of course, none of us—parents, students, or educators—are able to predict what that future will bring. The present pandemic is only the most recent evidence of this inability. We rely on the belief that understanding the past and the ever-changing present is the best and perhaps the only way to be able to confront the future.

Which brings me back to last week’s blog about The New York Times Weather Report. The NYT cares a lot about learning. Like many other publications, it offers deeply discounted (often free) academic rates for students and educators. The paper also has a whole Learning Network section online, which aims to:

1) Connect the classroom to the world.

2) Give students a voice — and strengthen literacy skills along the way.

3) Promote critical and creative thinking through multimedia.

The NYT summarizes the site in this way:

Welcome to The Learning Network. Here are three quick facts about our site:

  • The Learning Network publishes about 1,000 teaching resources each school year, all based on using Times content — articles, essays, images, videos, graphics and podcasts — as teaching tools across subject areas.

  • Most of our resources are free (only our lesson plans are limited to five per month for nonsubscribers).

  • Our intended audience is middle and high school teachers and students (teenagers 13 and up). That said, we know that our content is used in elementary schools and colleges as well, and much of it is appropriate for both.

The Learning Network section features over 100 lesson plans based on NYT articles. The areas of study include Science Technology and Health; Education; The Arts and Culture; Sports; American Politics, History and Civics; and Global History, Politics and Culture.

I, of course, searched for content related to either climate change or COVID-19. While I didn’t find a direct lesson plan on either of these topics, I found one about environmental issues and one that indirectly relates to climate change: “The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost.” I wrote some blogs about the latter (just put desalination in the search box) and the NYT has a full lesson on desalination:

Lesson of the Day: ‘The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost?’

In this lesson, students will explore the issue of access to clean and safe water and weigh the pros and cons of desalination as a possible solution to water scarcity.

Lesson Overview

Featured Article: “The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, but at What Cost?

The issue of water quantity and quality is increasingly a global problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 80 percent of the world is covered in water, but only 3 percent is fresh water. As more places face water scarcity, desalination is seen as a possible answer. However, energy and financial requirements limit how widely that process can be used.

In this lesson, students will explore the issue of water access, examine how desalination presents a potential solution, and finally, weigh the costs and benefits of various approaches to water scarcity.

Warm Up

Do you have access to clean and safe water? How concerned are you about access to quality water now or in the future?

Do you believe that your family, and Americans in general, use water wisely? Or do you think we take this vital resource for granted?

Before reading, look at the graph below and answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder? What are you curious about that comes from what you notice in the graph?
  • What story does the graph tell? Write a catchy headline that captures its main idea. If your headline makes a claim, tell us what you noticed that supports your claim.

water stress, fresh water

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  1. Scroll through the photos in the article: What do you notice? Which image stands out to you and why? What story do these photos tell?
  2. The article begins, “Desalinated seawater is the lifeblood of Saudi Arabia, no more so than at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.” Why did Henry Fountain, the author, start by describing the water uses of one university? How does this single institution illustrate the needs of the entire country?
  3. How big a problem is water quality and quantity globally? What are the major causes of water scarcity worldwide?
  4. What challenges do Saudi Arabia and other countries face in making desalination affordable and sustainable? In what ways are engineers and researchers addressing these challenges?
  5. In your own words, describe the desalination process. Explain reverse osmosis.
  6. How is Saudi Arabia’s effort to find renewable and sustainable water sources linked to finding sustainable energy sources?
  7. What is your reaction to the article? What was most interesting, surprising or provocative to you? How does this article alter your opinion of the way you, your family and your community use water? What responsibility do we all have to using water responsibility?

Going Further

Imagine you are a member of local government in one of the high water-stress locations identified on the map in the warm-up activity. Should you invest in desalination technology? What factors would you consider? What are the pros and cons of using desalination to solve the problem of water scarcity?

As part of your analysis, consider whether other possible solutions might be more desirable, such as changing individual water consumption patterns, recycling sewage into drinking watercombating water pollutionincreasing agricultural efficiencyinvesting in green infrastructure and taxing water use?

(You can find more information on the countries facing water stress in “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises.”)

What would you recommend?

The original article by Henry Fountain describes a desalination plant in Saudi Arabia. It mentions the financial cost as well as the environmental issues associated with having to dispose of the highly concentrated salt water that is the byproduct of the process. It also talks about trying to transition to sustainable energy sources like solar to drive the process. Many of the photographs included in the article illustrate life around the plant (guys playing golf and an empty Olympic swimming pool) rather than the facility itself.

One of the questions in the lesson plan directly relates to the global scarcity of fresh water (water stress). I especially applaud the lesson plan for urging students to look into other strategies and solutions for water stress. Unfortunately, the article itself is behind a paywall but you don’t need a subscription to look at a few lesson plans.

The NYT should be commended for running such a site. As I mentioned last week, I hope to convince the editors to digitize the Weather Report and make it public under the Learning Network section. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend heading over to the Learning Network site and looking at some of the great resources there.

Like the NYT, other publications and many universities—including mine—are starting to pay more and more attention to databases as a raw material for teaching students to quantitatively mobilize various aspects of the present in preparation for confronting the future. The NYT is collecting one of the most extensive databases on the new coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19. The database serves as an important source for understanding the impacts of the pandemic.

The Economist provides other useful databases that we can use to mobilize the present in the service of the future: the Democracy Index and the “Big Mac Index.” The latter uses the cost of a hamburger in different countries to compare the value of one currency against another, and whether they differ from official exchange rates.

Next week, I will get back to the multiple global threats that we are facing now.

Stay safe.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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2 Responses to School Curriculum: The NYT

  1. Roksana Jasiewicz says:

    The Learning Network seems like a good resource for both teachers and students. I think it’s good that it offers some lesson plans for free.

  2. Qi Yun (Richard) Guo says:

    It’s very interesting to hear about the different ways people were brought up in the education world. I feel that collectively people have agreed that education is a basic form of human rights. However, I don’t think we’ve had the conversation about what specifically should be taught in schools around the world. In my case, my education felt less about being naturally curious of certain subjects, and thus resulting in much of my time essentially wasted learning things that did not interest me at all, yet was deemed necessary.

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