Learning to Address Global Issues through International Collaboration and Inquiry

What healthcare concerns impact refugees globally? How do the conditions within refugee camps affect the physical and socioemotional well-being of refugees? How does the socio-demographic status of refugees change their treatment throughout displacement? These were all questions a group of 35 high school students from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Suzhou, China, sought to answer during the three-day PBI-Global Student Summit May 28-30, 2018.



Project-Based Inquiry Global (PBI-Global) is an inquiry process that connects students across the world through interdisciplinary inquiry projects. Hiller Spires, Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Literacy Education at the NC State College of Education, led the development of the process and has worked to create university-school partnerships to bring the process to life across the world.

PBI-Global invites students to ask compelling questions to solve a global problem then conduct research and analyze data to answer that question. This technique requires collaborative work to gather information, judge claims and evidence, and refine solutions in order to share their work.

For two months before the trip, the 35 students — 15 enrolled at Wake STEM Early College High School and 20 enrolled at Suzhou North America High School — worked collaboratively to develop their inquiry projects around the theme “A World on the Move: Migrants and Refugees.”

Split up into six teams, students communicated through apps like WeChat and used web-based word processor Google Docs across time, space and cultural differences to pose initial questions, conduct research and work through communication barriers to develop two digital products to communicate their findings.

An example of a digital product required as part of the PBI-Global project. Team 4’s project question was: How does sociodemographic status affect refugees?

“Our world is very complex, fast-paced, and students need to be acclimated to not just what happens in their town, in their state, or even in their country. They need to have a broader perspective to be informed citizens, students, and workers in whatever they may go on to do,” said Spires.

“PBI-Global helps students immerse themselves in global themes and interact in a cross-cultural world.”

It also helps them understand how they can contribute to addressing large-scale problems. The “World on the Move” theme of the student summit grew out of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Students posed questions about how to apply those goals to people in refugee and migrant situations.

“I like to ask the question, ‘What would happen if teachers and students around the world spent class time addressing the enduring challenges that the UN has identified?’ I think we would have a generation of young people who would have the passion and expertise to create solutions for these complex issues.  This work inspires and motivates me in new and exciting ways,” said Spires.

Once in China, the students met their respective partners for their first face-to-face meetings and immediately began fine-tuning the final projects for their PBI-Global questions. They had only two days to get to know each other, review their two digital products required for the project, and finalize their presentations before a global showcase on the third day.

Members of the NC State College of Education, Wake STEM Early College High School and Suzhou North America High School faculty and staff

The showcase included a keynote speech by United Nations Chief of Migration Bela Hovy before each group presented their question along with a solution in the form of an infographic and video. The event was streamed in real-time by local media in Suzhou so parents in North Carolina were able to see their children present their work in real time.

“The PBI Global Student Summit was a transformative and life-changing experience for students involved,” said Andrea Gambinoa ’10 MED, a humanities teacher at Wake STEM Early College High School, a joint project between the Wake County Public School System and NC State College of Education. “Seldomly, does a teacher get to travel the world with her students and watch the combination of global travel and education can have. I was fortunate to have this experience with them and I will never be the same. I am reminded of the very important job we have as educators to design authentic learning experiences that make a difference.”

PBI-Global requires students to take action as part of the project. For “A World on the Move,” students chose to organize and host a school dance at Suzhou North America High School to raise funds to donate to the United Nations refugee project.

“I fervently believe that this experience will help my students to continue to see how they can address complex problems through collaborating with others both locally and abroad,” Gambinoa said. “I believe that young adolescents like the students involved in this trip will combine their passion, intelligence and willingness to serve a global community to create innovative solutions that affect positive change on our world.

As a teacher, I am reminded by this experience that with students like this — our world is in great hands.”

*The 15 Wake STEM Early College High School students self-organized and funded their trip through travel grants and private donations.  

This post was originally published in College of Education News.