A meeting of the minds: Sunderland sixth-graders interview UMass graduate students for podcasts

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students Alyssa Sokol, Sarah Betti and Dooseok Jung talk about outer space with Sunderland Elementary School students for a podcast they are working on. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student Dooseok Jung talks about outer space with Sunderland Elementary School sixth-graders Eric Larsson and Ben Ayotte for a podcast they are working on. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Sixth-grade teacher Ryan Copeland, left, at Sunderland Elementary School with students Elsa Waring and London Lewis, talk with University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student Jason Higgins about the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II for a podcast they are working on. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 3/3/2020 6:45:12 PM

SUNDERLAND — Ryan Copeland, a sixth-grade teacher at Sunderland Elementary School, wanted to bring the traditional school report or essay more into alignment with the way his students interact with information on the internet.

So, instead of having his students write a report the traditional way, he is having them present their research by recording a podcast or building a website.

Using a website called Soundtrap.com, the students can mix and edit audio and add sound effects. The students have been working on their podcasts for roughly a month, and plan to be finished around Friday, March 13.

“It’s a pretty extensive project,” Copeland said.

After encouraging the students to pick a subject that interests them, Copeland invited graduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to visit Sunderland Elementary and discuss the subjects, which include space exploration, disease and illnesses, mental health as it relates to other illnesses and the criminal justice system, and the use of nuclear weapons. The sixth-graders then record the UMass students during interviews, producing audio for the podcasts.

Students chose from five or six topics to research. While some students are researching the same subjects, their questions and their specific focuses are different, allowing each podcast to be unique.

“They may fall in similar categories and overlap, but nobody is focusing on the exact same thing,” Copeland explained.

Space exploration was a popular subject, and graduate students Alyssa Sokol, Sarah Betti and Dooseok Jung met with Copeland’s students on last week to discuss it.

One topic was exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system). Sokol explained that looking for rocky planets like the Earth in other solar systems has garnered a lot of interest in their field. She explained that looking at the nearest planet would be comparable to looking, from here, at a lighthouse on the West Coast, with the lighthouse representing the star and a gnat circling the lighthouse representing an Earth-sized planet.

Betti said her goal would be to visit Mars, noting there is currently no way to travel fast enough to visit another solar system within our lifetime. She also told students about terraformation — the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying a planet, moon or other body to have a similar environment to Earth to make it habitable.

Additionally, Jung discussed her interest in astrobiology — a field concerned with the origins, early evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it.

Ethical questions emerged during the students’ interviews: Should we pursue terraformation? Should the government pay for space exploration? Who would benefit? Will the private sector lead the way to space?

A lot of students have developed research questions that deal with ethics, though they may not have a clear, single answer, Copeland said. The podcast project has been a good challenge for students in this way. He said it pushes them to learn about something that doesn’t have black-and-white answers and develop more nuanced thinking.

“It can be challenging researching something without a singular answer, but it’s helping them learn about topics that have gray areas,” Copeland said. “They’re raising questions. It’s been rewarding for them, and exciting to see them embrace that open-ended way of thinking.”

Two of Copeland’s students wanted to explore bombs, specifically the use of the atomic bombs in World War II. Graduate student Jason Higgins visited Sunderland Elementary to lend his expertise in the subject, which quickly led to the ethical questions involved such as “Did the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan actually save lives?” Higgins also touched upon the Vietnam War, noting the United States dropped more bombs on Vietnam than it did throughout the entirety of World War II.

The UMass students will return this week to partake in recorded interviews for the podcasts. On Wednesday, a doctoral candidate from the Sociology Department will join a group of sixth-graders who are researching the same topic as the UMass student’s dissertation: the relationship between mental health and the criminal justice system.

“The questions the kids have developed are amazing,” Copeland said.

While this is the first time students are producing podcasts for an assignment, Copeland said he has already thought about continuing it. He plans to propose an ongoing partnership with the UMass graduate program.

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