Educator Spotlight: Design a Civilization

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Brian Cushing, Ronny Smith, and Anthony Green, this week’s Educators of the Week, challenged their students to be creative and design their own sustainable civilizations. This teacher team works at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. The post was written in collaboration with the group.

From left to right: Brian Cushing, Tony Green, and Ronny Smith. Photo by Lisa Coffey-Mahoney

Activity: Design a Civilization

Grade Level: 9

Time Commitment: About three weeks

What would you do if you’d been given omniscient and omnipotent powers to create a civilization at the start of the Iron Age (1000 BCE), using all the knowledge we have today? You could create a civilization that would last for millennia! And that’s just what our students did.

The students worked in groups to complete the following challenges.

Design an eighth continent with the geographic location between 30°N-45°N latitude and 150°W-165°W longitude.
Students had almost unlimited creative freedom for this part of the project. They could design the continent in whatever (school-appropriate) shape they wished, as long as they allowed settlers from the other continents to settle there. We encouraged them to consider if it would have islands, mountains, rivers, jungles, or deserts. Students used their knowledge of geography to make logical choices in their design.

Create and explain all the features that qualify your human settlement as a civilization.
Students considered these questions, among others, to create a detailed civilization: What type of government does your civilization have? What crops have been domesticated? What are the basic social levels in your society—are there privileges for some not afforded to others? How does your society deal with waste?

Plan how your civilization will be sustainable for millennia.
The students incorporated readings from Jared Diamond, Thomas Malthus, Melvin Tumin, and John W. Bennett to develop a sustainable strategy for their civilizations.

Teachers: See the full lesson plan here.

Describe the student impact of this lesson. Was there a change in thought process, behavior, or perspective?
Students showed a definite change in their perspectives about sustainability. All the groups addressed the benefits of composting at a personal and societal level as part of their sustainability plans. The students also demonstrated a more comprehensive view of the challenges facing civilizations.


If you could take your students on a field trip to anywhere, where would you go?
I (Brian) would definitely take the students to Easter Island, a Chilean territory in the Pacific Ocean. Jared Diamond‘s book Collapse, which investigates the fall of historical civilizations, inspired this lesson. Easter Island is a particularly interesting case because its civilization collapsed almost entirely from environmental damage. It would be unforgettable for the students to actually study the place where the collapse happened.

Are there specific teaching methods or technologies you use to help students to connect with the outside world?
We have the advantage of a Living Lab at our school that allowed the students to have a hands-on lesson with regards to domestication and sustainability. Actually harvesting and composting local crops made for a unique educational experience. Other teachers might consider partnering with a community garden in their area to get a similar effect.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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