By Patrick McArdle
Students at Rutland High School took part in their fourth annual Global Issues Network conference last Thursday to look at the worldwide issues the teenagers will have to deal with in the future.
The theme of the conference was infectious disease, the topic of the keynote address by Dr. Harry Chen, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health.
Chen, the past director of the emergency room at Rutland Regional Medical Center and the father of three Rutland High School graduates, spoke about the value to America of treating disease throughout the world.
“I want to sum up with a few takeaways for all of you,” Chen told the students. “One, the world is more connected than ever and, yes, that makes us smarter. Two, some people are less healthy than others based on who they are or where they live. We need to figure out how to address that and fix it. Three, we need critical thinkers who can ask those tough questions to make the world a better place. No pressure, guys.”
Students were prepared for the esoteric presentation, asking Chen questions from the floor about how they could get resources to people in need, what responsibility America should have in treating people in other countries, and how the doctor feels about treatment through genetic engineering.
Students also heard from the Vermont Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, who spoke about growing up in countries that were affected by crises not commonly seen in the United States.
The Global Issues Network, or GIN, conferences ask students to look at one of 20 global issues from a book that challenges students to step up to solve them. There will be eight around the world in the first half of 2017 and only one takes place at a public school. The only other American GIN conference is in Hawaii.
Despite the high-level subject matter, much of the learning on Thursday was not provided by experts, but by peers.
Upper-grade students at Rutland High School complete a Capstone project during the school year, a sort of independent study that allows them to pursue their own interests. During the GIN conference, some of the students presented the findings from their project, even though they weren’t all on the topic of infectious disease.
Patrick Dundas presented information on renewable resources by looking at ways electronic devices can be recycled or renewed. Lily Schillinger spoke about a very local and current topic, discussing the general concerns about Syrian refugees and what it might mean to Rutland to host some Syrian families.
Lauren Cozzens used visual aids to explain how gene therapy can fight disease. During her presentation, she used examples from Chen’s keynote address to remind her fellow students about the relevancy of her findings to what they had just heard.
Theater teacher Cathy Archer led a group that included some acting exercises and discussion of the “theater of the oppressed” movement.
The students, some from other schools, were able to sign up for presentations on topics in which they had an interest. There were also lunch sessions and a “global village discussion” to bring students together.
Behind the scenes, some students were not only learning about the topics presented but about how to organize and facilitate a conference.
“It’s a conference by the students for the students, so they’re the ones who are organizing it for their own classmates. It’s empowering our students to take ownership not only of getting awareness out, but getting their voices heard,” said science teacher Erica Wallstrom.
Sophomore Austin Robertson said he hoped his fellow Rutland High students would learn to think about the bigger picture.
“I hope that they’ll realize that whatever you’re doing now around your community isn’t just going to affect the people around you. It’s going to later affect people all around the world,” he said.
Julia Greenfield, a freshman who acted as master of ceremonies with Robertson during the opening session, said the experience helped build confidence. She added that it was fun to be a part of something that students are passionate about concerning global issues.
Victoria Quint, a junior, said the GIN conference had helped her learn how to talk to people she didn’t know, especially adults.
“This morning, I was showing the secretary of education for the state to her seat,” she said.