Teachers know that enlisting students to help solve real-world problems is one of the most effective ways to bring classroom lessons alive. More and more often, these types of projects are being used to introduce students to the many uses of technology.

One teacher in a suburb of Atlanta used the environmental and traffic problems created by the region’s runaway growth as the basis for a project to create city and suburban planning. All of her middle school students could see the impact of growth on their immediate environment, in the growth of traffic and housing and also in the loss of open spaces. They were given an assignment to balance growth with the other needs of society and the environment—including some specific limitations, such as maintaining a nature preserve and calculating the economic loss of rejected development projects.

Working in small groups, the students devised road systems and master development plans that would accommodate all the needs of their community. They shared these ideas with their peers through multimedia presentations at the end of the school year, and students voted on the “winning” plan.

To gather information, students conducted web searches and also sent eMails to environmental and development experts in their chosen communities. They used simple spreadsheets and online calculators to determine the costs of various development schemes. Creating presentations of their findings required that they become familiar with word processing, scanning, PowerPoint, and other software.

By working together and then comparing plans, students learned that a problem can be addressed in many ways. They also learned that different people can rank problems in a different priority order, thus leading to different sets of solutions.