For high schoolers, 20 years might as well be a lifetime. But hand them a problem that experts say threatens the entire planet if not solved in the next two decades, and they'll simply get to work. Perhaps the most hopeful sign for the rest of us: They'll have fun while they're at it.
A prime example was an ebullient group of teenage girls, a whirl of blue jeans and saris amid hundreds of teachers and students gathered for a conference recently in Boston. During the school year, they've exchanged roughly 1,500 e-mails between Mount Saint Joseph Academy near Philadelphia and St. Joseph's Convent School in Jabalpur, India. They've even had a few videoconferences in their quest to get to know each other and to hash out some practical means to chip away at global infectious diseases.
That's the topic they selected as participants in a new initiative called Challenge 20/20. Organized by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Washington, D.C., it engages students as young as pre-K in finding local ways to address 20 urgent issues - after they've thought about them first on a global level.
"In most private schools, they've been feeding students a line about 'global citizenship' for a long time. The trick is, how do they make it empowering, so [the students] really want to take action." said Bob Lapsley, a teacher at the Lakeside School in Seattle, which partnered with a class in Johannesburg for Challenge 20/20. After participating in this project, he said, his students are ready to move beyond theory and take their ideas "onto the streets."
The US-India team finally narrowed its focus to the need for sanitary medical supplies, particularly in two villages "adopted" by the Indian students. "We want to create a website - like an eBay for medical supplies like bandages, syringes, blankets, incubators - so that poor hospitals can put up on the Internet the things they need and wealthy hospitals can ... agree to send them those things," said American team member Amanda Fellmeth. They also raised awareness in their respective schools by giving talks to younger students about their research.
But the personal connections are what motivated it all. When they started talking with students from the other side of the globe, "all of a sudden, the world feels so big and you feel so small, and there's a humbling there.... But at the same time, it's empowering," said American student Bess Flashner.
"When we did our videoconferencing [in November], we were so fascinated, that from that moment we just kept our [other] studies aside," said Rekha Nair. She and two other students represented their class of 13 at the conference in Boston, where the team was given an award from NAIS for their work.
Deepik Rajawat, the Indian adviser, wasn't sure at first that the school and her students' families would support their participation. "In India, parents weigh these projects with reference to what are they [the students] going to get: Admission to college in America? Something else?... Fortunately the parents said, 'OK, the exposure [to this experience] will be good in and of itself.' "
Shreya Chakraborty was glad to finally have an outlet for her thoughts on international problems. "We [have been] studying these issues [since] maybe sixth grade.... But we didn't get a chance to express our views [until now]," she said.
The inspiration for the initiative is the book "High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them," by former World Bank vice president Jean-François Rischard. In the closing speech at the conference, Mr. Rischard outlined how world leaders and experts could deal more effectively with cross-border issues. And he commented on the enthusiasm with which students have responded to his ideas.
"The creativity that's been deployed so far has been absolutely stunning," he said. "It's a fantastic companion to what I'm trying to do." Encouraging students to think of themselves as global citizens first, then as national citizens, and then as local members of a community "is the most powerful thing you can do," he said.
Student teams participating in the National Association of Independent Schools Challenge 20/20 chose one issue from this list outlined by former World Bank vice president Jean-François Rischard in his book, "High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them." The problems are clustered in three groups, but not ranked in any order of urgency:
Sharing our planet: Issues involving the global commons
1. Global warming
2. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses
3. Fisheries depletion
5. Water deficits
Sharing our humanity: Issues requiring global commitment
6. Maritime safety and pollution
7. Massive step-up in the fight against poverty
8. Peacekeeping, conflict prevention, combating terrorism
9. Education for all
10. Global infectious diseases
11. Digital divide
12. Natural disaster prevention and mitigation
Sharing our rule book: Issues needing a global regulatory approach
13. Reinventing taxation for the 21st century
14. Biotechnology rules
15. Global financial architecture
16. Illegal drugs
17. Trade, investment, and competition rules
18. Intellectual property rights
19. E-commerce rules
20. International labor and migration rules
To learn more on the Challenge 20/20 program, see www.nais.org, click on Global Education, and scroll down to Challenge 20/20; or call NAIS at (202) 973-9755.