female student studying

Every day I get to ask students: What do you want to learn?

I follow this up with, where did your interest in this come from? Of late, the answer to this last question goes without saying: the whole world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic—and even more recently, the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and our nation’s examination of systemic racism. The depth behind students’ answers, however, is as varied and disparate as their interests were under “normal” circumstances. 

As an educator and co-founder of the online project-based research program, Polygence, I’ve seen the power of authentic issues based on current events to inspire student inquiry. We match students up with adult experts as mentors, to pursue topics of their own interest.

Now is one of those rare moments where student interests truly converge. In our program, students have been choosing to research a variety of topics related to the pandemic. They raise questions that are immense challenges for even sophisticated experts and scientists. In these times, students are naturally authentic, voice their opinions, and raise important questions. More than ever, they embody the principles of Gold Standard PBL.

This is the perfect time to engage in PBL with your students. Many of our students have remarked that this is the first time they feel that their academic work has real-life implications.

Here are some examples of student research projects inspired by the pandemic.

One of our students is combining his passion for psychology with his fascination with changing social behaviors as a result of the pandemic. In his project, he is investigating the psychological impact and the cognitive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has designed a series of surveys and is collecting data that sheds light on the circles of cooperation that have formed as a result of the crisis. His mentor guided him throughout the process and helped him develop a robust survey framework. He is now working towards a research paper discussing his results and findings. 

Another one of our students, who has been fascinated by microbiology and genetics ever since he was in middle school, is working on a computational biology project analyzing gene expression patterns of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He pivoted to this project idea when the crisis first emerged and has been extremely motivated since to produce a scientific research paper that lays out her research and findings to other curious teenagers like himself. 

For all those teachers out there who are adapting to virtual teaching and thinking of new and exciting research projects to engage students in, here are some ideas:

Professional blog as a time capsule
Unlike in the early 2000s, you can now make a blog that’s beautiful, professional, easy, and free through sites like Wix, SquareSpace, and Weebly. Your students will see that the website is real and legitimate; they’ll be honored to contribute (especially if you invite outsiders to participate too, like parents, your principal, and other staff). One of the best things about a blog is its flexibility; students can write posts together or independently. They can talk about disparate issues (e.g., economics, biology, psychology, and others) that can be sorted and labeled into categories. At the end, it becomes a sort of time capsule, where students can return years from now to remember what they were worried and curious about during this time.

Build or contribute to an archive of personal narratives 
Many digital publications and research centers have been putting together archives of oral and written narratives of people’s diverse experiences during this unprecedented crisis. My home institution, Stanford University, has started a wonderful archival project called Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic, where they solicit and publish anonymized written narratives from people around the world about their personal experiences in quarantine. Teachers can replicate that for their class, or even spearhead a larger initiative to build a school-wide archive of stories. 

Showcase creative expression in your community
People young and old have taken to creative expression to document their experiences in quarantine. Songwriting, poetry, fiction, personal essays, creative writing projects, photography, or painting are all ways students may engaged creatively with these unprecedented times. However, this experience becomes more meaningful and important to students when they can showcase what they’ve done. Libraries, grocery stores, and community centers are usually looking for opportunities to connect with their local communities. Students less interested in the creative process might be more interested in the project-management. When you give students the ownership to draft and send an email to one of these locales, they see their impact and understand their contribution is valuable (even if less tangible).

Data analysis projects
For more quantitative projects, there are plenty of opportunities to work with publicly available data sets. One of my friends regularly adds government-published COVID-19 infection and testing data sets to this publicly available google drive. Data is increasingly important in our modern world, and it’s a natural opportunity for students to try to ask and answer their own questions. With these questions at hand, they can then go about crafting their own infographics that seek to inform their community about the pressing question they raised. Once made, individual students can practice reaching out to local businesses, radio shows, and even news stations to see if they are interested in displaying their infographic for a wider audience. 

Although the pandemic has certainly dealt a huge blow to school systems around the world, we can turn this situation into interesting and innovative teaching opportunities.

I'm sure we'll soon be hearing from students who want to do projects on racism, policing, the protests and the movement for justice. I am both very encouraged and heartened by the ways in which our students are taking this opportunity to engage in authentic sustained inquiry, and I hope this will come as an inspiration to other educators as well!  

Jin Yun Chow, Co-founder, Polygence