Look around you. Are there issues that need solving? Are there needs not being met? Take a beat from Castle Hill Middle School students, who are taking the reins to create change with a school-wide Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project. It may be a buzz phrase in some areas of the education world, but what does the real-life application of student agency and inquiry look like?

Take the school’s new after school coding club, for example. One tech-interested student wondered how he could build a skill set when his school and community didn’t have access to the same tools and instruction available in other areas. But he didn’t stop there. Turning inquiry into action, the student has designed a research project to explore the nation’s digital divide, and advocated for a space for he and other interested students to both learn and implement new skills by working toward building an app and website for the school.

The power of student observation and awareness of problems around them is nothing new, but rarely are they given the opportunity to lead inquiry into the issues that affect them most and direct change through action. YPAR invites them to do just that: identify problems, conduct research, and design, implement, and evaluate a plan to address individual and community issues. With the support of a 2014 LRNG Innovation Challenge grant, Castle Hill Middle School is implementing a school-wide YPAR project to create an online “hub” for individual student projects, to include resources, data, and tutorials uploaded by both students and teachers.

Led mostly by the Social Studies faculty across sixth through eighth grades, students will navigate a Connected Learning-based methodology that will help them better understand and take action on the social and political problems closest to them. All 750 of the school’s students are currently involved in the project, and they’re diving into everyday issues, including the social and ecological environment of the school, bullying, and even the nutritional content and cultural relevance of school lunches.

Students don’t just see the project as another school assignment. They’re excited about the opportunity to research and explore, and are using online annotation apps and group chat to collaborate and have independent discussions about the project. Curious about student engagement and interest at her school, student council president Sibill is investigating this issue by developing a series of interview questions for students, teachers, and administrators. Because of this project, Sibill believes that she’s able to “better explain to teachers, other students, and administrators the causes of students being engaged or not engaged. I’m learning to look at problems from multiple perspectives.”

Students will continue to shape their projects through data collection, trips to research sites, and talking with community leaders and field professionals. Documenting work and sharing progress with new technologies, students keep the collaborative energy going by using iPads, video cameras, computer stations, and mobile devices to record and load work onto the developing online platform. Trips are planned to Albany, NY and Washington, DC, where students will present their findings to state legislators. “I think that through the process students are being empowered to think critically about the structures in society that have been created,” said Martin Sanders, a teacher at Castle Hill and one of the project’s leaders. “They’re gaining knowledge about those systems and where they come from and being empowered on how to challenge the status quo.”

Though research skills are taught and have a place within traditional classroom environments, it’s difficult to ensure that students are given the opportunities to apply these skills in settings and situations outside of school. Many educators also worry about not having the time to make additions to existing curriculums, comply with standardization measures, or access to the technologies needed to support student inquiry projects. Castle Hill, a public, ethnically diverse middle school situated in the Bronx, NY, had first-hand knowledge of these constraints as they worked to implement a participatory research program at the school last year. So why is it worth the effort?

“YPAR positions youth to provide alternative solutions to problems that they encounter, trusted to make decisions about issues that have a direct bearing on the trajectory of their individual and collective futures,” says educator and team member Danielle Filipiak. “It asks the question, ‘what can we do to improve the quality of life in our community?’ and it takes seriously young people’s responses to this question.”

The 2014 Learning Innovation Challenge, supported by the National Writing Project, John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, awarded 14 teams with grants for innovative projects that create more time and space for students to pursue interests and create work that is meaningful to them.

Already, the school is transforming, with pedagogical approaches and tech-influenced practices being put into place, all fueled by the passion of the team engaged in the work and the greater school community. Notes Filipiak, “So often the narrative is that urban schools don’t have strong leaders. This just isn’t the case. The administrators who invited this project into the building are willing to struggle through trying something different. They believe and hope for the best for students and teachers.”

By Maranatha Bivens