Energy. The environment. Global recession. Hundreds of students from around the world will work together this week to try to tackle the very same problems that the Group of 20 summit leaders will discuss when they arrive in Pittsburgh next week.
But these teenagers will never leave their schools or cities.
Instead, they will use high-speed broadband connections, webcasts, internet and video conferencing–the same technology that has helped make the economy inextricably global–to try to solve the very issues that leave world leaders flabbergasted.
"There’s no problem without a solution," says Camillo Coccia, a 17-year-old 11th-grader at Cornwall Hill College, a private school in Pretoria, South Africa, who is preparing to participate in the G-20 student summit Sept. 17.
"It’s quite complex. The more I learn about it, the harder it is to come up with a possible solution," adds Coccia, who is immersed in world economics, the global recession, and the markets of the countries that make up the real G-20 as he prepares for the student summit.
The idea for a student summit was born shortly after President Barack Obama announced in May that he had invited 19 world leaders and European Union officials to Pittsburgh for the Sept. 24-25 global economic summit.
Several Pittsburgh teachers approached the World Affairs Council–a nonprofit that aims to provide students with a nonpartisan perspective on global issues–seeking to take the G-20 to students.
"Making world affairs relevant to high school students is difficult, so when you have an international event like this in your backyard, you grasp at it," said Jennifer Klein, a social studies teacher at Fox Chapel Area High School who was among the first to contact the council.
Initially, Klein envisioned an event for students at Fox Chapel Area High School, a school in an affluent suburb about 11 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. As interest grew, she thought it might expand to some other area schools. Never did Klein think it would include 2,000 students as far away as Brazil, South Africa, and Italy, as well as 64 Pittsburgh-area schools linked by a $9 million broadband system serving only a handful of U.S. cities.
The program begins Sept. 17 with some 450 Pittsburgh-area students gathered in the Fox Chapel auditorium listening to a panel of experts discuss everything from the environment to energy and global economics. Students in other Pittsburgh schools and South Africa, Brazil, and Italy will watch via an internet connection.
After the panel, the students will break into groups to try to solve the issues. In Pittsburgh, students have been chosen as "delegates" for each of the G-20 countries.
Sarah Ogren, a 15-year-old Fox Chapel sophomore, is a South Korean "delegate." This week, she is becoming an expert on the Asian country, "studying their views from previous G-20s and guessing what they will do this time."
While Ogren is representing South Korea, James Santelli, a 17-year-old Fox Chapel senior, will be handling the media. Transformed for a day into the school’s flak, Santelli will be overseeing the "media room," answering questions from the "real" media and the reporters from the other schools’ student newspapers.
At the end of the session, the students from the different schools and countries will be able to debate the issues via video conference.
Even protesters have been accounted for, included in an elaborate display of posters and silhouettes meant to represent the thousands who gather at the G-20 to oppose members’ policies. Fox Chapel principal Michael Hower has also designated a First Amendment space in the school should any students want to protest.
In addition, the school and O’Hara Township–where Fox Chapel is located–are preparing for any real protesters who might accompany the student summit.
Thousands of miles away in South Africa, no protesters are expected, though the 18 students who will travel the 25 miles to a high-tech facility in Johannesburg will have a grueling schedule that day, ending sometime after 8 p.m.–almost like the world leaders attending the Pittsburgh summit.
For them, some of the G-20 issues are more tangible. Coccia, the 11th-grader, notes that after banks in the United States collapsed last year, food prices in South Africa soared–at one point, increasing nearly 80 percent–hitting the soft underbelly of a country where people are already starving.
A sudden cut in donor funds because of the global cash crunch is trickling down to factories and plants that can no longer operate, Coccia added. Hearing the perspective of Europe, South America, and North America will increase the understanding of South Africans–and maybe even allow students to help in some way.
"Everything that happens in the world, in the first-world countries, directly influences us, so I mean, anything that we can help we have to help," Coccia said.
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Learning Without Limits resource center. Online learning is no longer regarded with the skepticism it was a decade ago–and now thousands of K-12 schools nationwide are turning to online-learning providers for help with credit recovery, enrichment opportunities for gifted students, and even for providing core curriculum classes in areas where there isn’t enough demand to justify keeping a teacher on staff. Go to: Learning Without Limits