Educator Spotlight: Designing Sustainable Cities

Reggie Vasquez challenged his fifth-graders to design a future city incorporating sustainable and alternative energy sources. Students used the inquiry process and education technology, such as green screen, virtual reality, and mapping tools, to create public service announcements explaining their sustainable cities.

Reggie Vasquez holds up a tool in front of a group of students
Reggie Vasquez currently teaches third and fourth grade at John William Boich Public School in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Previously, he taught fifth grade at W.H. Morden Public School in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy Reggie Vasquez

What inspired you to create a National Geographic Educator Certification project focused on designing sustainable cities?

My young children, my students, my passion for STEM, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals were my inspirations for this project. I believe my students can make a difference in our world right now, and I tell them this.

This project began with an open-ended question: “How can we make the world a better place for all living things?” After some brainstorming and small group discussions, students brought up the topics of alternative energy, sustainable energy, carbon emissions, and nuclear energy. This led to students researching sustainable energy and designing environmentally friendly cities.

How did you incorporate new technology into your project?

Students used a variety of technologies to bring to life the sustainable cities they designed. They used four online mapping tools—Google Maps, National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive, Google Tour Builder, and Google Tour Creator VR—to gather information, gain spatial perspectives, and embed design details in an organized manner. Virtual reality tools, such as Minecraft and Gear VR, and 3D printing software, such as Tinkercad, allowed students to express themselves creatively throughout the design process. Green screen technology, like Do Ink, enabled students to use their acting skills and imagination to share their vision via video.  

Reggie Vasquez points to a projection of Google Earth as students look on
Students examined Google Earth satellite imagery of their school. Photo courtesy Reggie Vasquez

My students were especially receptive to new technology because we had been establishing growth mindsets since the beginning of the school year. Given my students’ varied technology backgrounds, I made sure to provide different tools to support their diverse needs. I gave demonstrations for some of the tools and offered explicit instruction for others. I also shared additional tools for them to explore on their own.

Did using technology like green screen and virtual reality motivate students?

The challenge during this project was making sure students didn’t forget about their other classes! There is no doubt in my mind that the use of technology helped motivate and empower students to embrace the challenge of designing an environmentally friendly city. Green screen gave students the ability to play the role of a news reporter and transform our school into a mini-television studio while recording their public service announcements. This technology, along with the National Geographic Learning Framework, was the glue that bound together all the pieces of the project.  

Student wearing a virtual reality headset
Students created and viewed tours using virtual reality headsets. Photo by Reggie Vasquez

Technology enhanced the iterative process of this project. Students worked in small groups to edit, splice, and tweak their content repeatedly until they were satisfied with the quality of their work. Seeing students learning and laughing with each other, especially over mistakes, made the experience that much more enjoyable for me as their teacher.

What advice do you have for other educators looking to incorporate novel technology into their teaching?

While technology is not the key to better education, in my opinion, it allows educators to tap into a language already being used by today’s learners. Technology can help teachers give their students a voice while allowing for unique avenues of expression and creativity.

My biggest piece of advice for educators is to see themselves as learners; they do not need to have all the answers regarding technology. In fact, technology empowers students to learn alongside their teachers. It is crucial that we embrace 21st-century competencies to equip our students with the necessary skills for navigating the world. What we see as novel technology today may become part of the mainstream tomorrow.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

What surprised you about students’ reaction to the project?

My students’ level of excitement and their sustained passion for the project amazed me. The intensity of their dedication grew from week to week as pieces of the project started coming together. I was proud of how my students embraced the Explorer Mindset throughout the process. I was amazed at the teamwork and camaraderie that developed among students despite the steep learning curve of using new technologies.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Reggie as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

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