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Sixth Grade Students Debate Controversial Environmental Topics

Sixth grade students faced off in a series of animated debates about climate change and the use of plastic water bottles during their earth science classes. The students were assessed during the exercise, which served as an alternative to traditional testing. 

“The debate capped off our controversial environmental topics unit,” said associate middle school teacher Katie O’Connor. “We started the unit discussing a variety of environmental issues, including what they are, how our lives are impacted, and what our role may or may not be. We spent a lot of time talking about how people might have different opinions about environmental issues, which led to the debate.”

As students were discussing environmental issues in science, they were studying climate in their history class. O'Connor saw an opportunity to make a connection between the two classes by making climate change a debate topic. 

Water scarcity was an ongoing focus of conversation during science classes. As students learned about various water issues around the world, especially those in Flint, Michigan, the water bottle debate presented itself.

“I wanted them to work on crafting an argument by making a claim and backing it with evidence,” said O'Connor. “The major goal of the debate was to help students hone their research skills, work on using evidence to support their argument, and practice disagreeing respectfully.”

The format resonated with students, who, in their post-debate reflection forms, noted how much fun they had with this exercise while still feeling challenged.

“It was really fun for me and my partners to work together to make a good debate,” said Jiya Dohil '28, who debated climate change. “Even though we lost the debate in the end, I think we still had a strong debate.”

Each of the teams were provided with a handful of sources related to a designated topic. The initial task was to read the articles and identify four pieces of evidence that supported a position, as well as one piece of evidence that countered it  O’Connor wanted to keep students thinking about the opposing argument, and thereby deepen their learning.

“Going into this argument I expected it to be an easy debate,” said Tim Drbul '28, who argued that plastic water bottles should be banned. “After researching my topic I found that there isn't really a right answer to this argument.”

Each student wrote their own statement, but the groups worked together to coordinate their arguments for the strongest presentation possible. This collaborative approach resulted in conversations that refined positions and bolstered their understanding of the topics at hand.

“I think it was really fun because we didn't have to do it alone,” said Zeba Hart-Syed '28, whose team debated climate change, and won. “I learned that simple stuff like driving and logging are a main part of climate change.”

Once students finished presenting their arguments, the audience was invited to ask questions. Students then filled out reflection forms and voted for the teams they believed presented the strongest arguments. Regardless of outcome, it was the realization that all sides be considered before drawing a conclusion that left the greatest impression on students. 

“After succeeding in my debate, I learned that you should always research a big problem when it seems like it has an obvious solution,” said Tim.

Learning Heats Up in Debate About Climate Change