The group of 7th-graders from Liberty Middle School built a brand new civilization on a remote island, a mountainous and isolated tract ideal for staving off invaders.
The remoteness of the place gave the founders the freedom to finalize every important detail of the new society's makeup, from schools to energy infrastructure. They settled on an optimal economy and currency. They guided the direction of the culture's education system, its government and its fundamental moral principles. All of these elements would face a critical test as the founders tackled a crisis that threatened the very heart of their fledgling society.
Luckily, they had the whole of world history and the latest in cutting-edge technology to look to as a model.
"We started by taking what we learned in social studies class and did research online," said Ryan Chapman, a member of the student group that created the imagined island civilization named Silver Port. "We combined what we thought would work well with our civilization and decided what we wanted to include."
The students' broad examination of overarching themes in the history of the western world was a major goal behind the "Ultimate Civilization Project," an ambitious and wide-ranging assignment that paired lessons learned in the middle schoolers' social studies and science classes. Teams involved in the project were tasked with designing their own civilizations to the most exacting detail. Drawing on their lessons from earlier in the year that outlined the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, students decided their societies' geography, religion, politics, economics and great achievements.
"Part of the assignment was they had to justify their project using evidence from ancient civilizations," said Liberty Middle School social studies teacher Katie Nelson, who organized the project with science teacher Laura Wurzenberger. "They could set it up however they wanted, but they had to have evidence that it would be successful based on what they've learned throughout the year."
Many groups opted to create governmental structures similar to the U.S. – free-market based democratic republics where the citizens have a say in choosing their leaders. They created religious structures that combined elements from different belief systems; they sketched out their civilizations' currency and came up with lists of imports and exports.
But the students' historical background was only part of the project. Their scientific literacy came into play for another element of the assignment. Each group's civilization faced a specific challenge, hurdles ranging from environmental damage to the outbreak of a virulent disease.
"They drew a science problem out of a hat," Nelson said. "They had to use the civilization they set up to address that issue and save their society."
The breadth of solutions was impressive, Nelson said. Students built working models of hydro-electric energy plants to deal with an environmental crisis; they created algae lamps and offered real-world examples of high-tech engineering feats. One group went straight to the source to address the hypothetical crisis of a catastrophic geological event.
"One of the science problems that groups could have drawn is that Yellowstone was erupting. One of our groups actually emailed a volcano expert from Yellowstone and had some dialogue back and forth with him," she said. "That was really cool to see them take the initiative."
The students' inter-disciplinary work culminated in a formal presentation for a panel of judges, officials that included parents and community members. The format offered parents insight into the students' classroom work and gave them a chance to provide feedback. It also required students to defend their work and offer prepared responses to some tough questions.
"The toughest part was putting it all together in the end and presenting," said Andrew Walkowicz, 13, whose group created a representative democracy called Tyland. Walkowicz and his peers had to figure out a way to address a superbug similar to leprosy. "We had to make sure we all knew our parts well so we could do our best."
That valuable practice in public speaking was another benefit to a project that already had cross-disciplinary learning at its heart.
"This has been the best example of why what we learn is relevant," Nelson said. "The students are doing what policy-makers today are doing; they're seeing that what they learned in 7th-grade social studies and 7th-grade science actually do go together. You need knowledge from both of them to be successful in society."