WALNUT CREEK -- Eighth-graders at Foothill Middle School are learning how to make a difference in their community by working with classmates to raise awareness of important issues and help solve problems.

Chris Jung, Jocelyn Wirfel and several other students worked to help feed the hungry. Other students researched ways to stop gun violence, while another group investigated human trafficking.

"A lot of people aren't getting enough food," said Jocelyn, after her group gave its end-of-the-year presentation. "No one deserves to be hungry."

Students in Chris and Jocelyn's group made a video that showed them taking groceries to the local food bank to help feed needy families. Another group put on a benefit concert to raise money for suicide prevention, while others set up websites, Instagram pages or created their own videos to supplement their research.

The projects, said teacher Creston Higgins, incorporated many of the new Common Core standards, which require students to collaborate in teams and use critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In addition, students used technology to find information then share it with each other and their audiences.

In the past, teachers at the school have asked students to complete individual end-of-the-year research projects they called "I-Search," based on careers that interested them, Higgins said. But this year, teachers instead asked students to work in groups researching community issues they felt passionate about.

They got the idea, Higgins said, from a workshop that taught them to integrate Common Core standards and technology into their classrooms. When students choose their subjects, they are engaged in their research and learn more, experts said.

Foothill teachers were excited about integrating what are known as the 4Cs of 21st-century learning into the projects -- communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Common Core standards that emphasize speaking, listening and writing also fit perfectly with the "We-Search" projects, Higgins said.

Students were required to include five pieces of research in their projects, including two experts interviewed by phone, Skype or in person, then write persuasive essays related to their interviews. They shared information using Google drive accounts and embedded content from other media such as iMovie or Prezi presentation software, she added.

Students worked in class as well as outside school and divided up duties among themselves, building time management and teamwork skills. They presented their findings to the entire eighth grade, as well as to invited guests such as Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson.

"These students rose to the occasion," Higgins said. "We have been truly impressed by their social action in particular."

Principal April Bush said she was proud of the students, as well as her staff, for developing a comprehensive project that could serve as a model to others striving to implement Common Core standards while also preparing students for high school and beyond. Bush said she encourages teachers to take advantage of professional development opportunities so they can learn new ways to engage students in learning, especially through technology.

"We're trying to keep up with the students, who are more advanced than we are," Bush said of their technological expertise. "Sometimes, it's just a question of putting the tools in their hands and getting out of their way."

We-search topics
Sampling of subjects researched by students at Foothill Middle School:
Anxiety in adolescents, autism, cyberbullying, Down syndrome, eating disorders, food insecurity/hunger, gun violence, health care, homelessness, human trafficking, illiteracy, Internet neutrality, mental illness, pet overpopulation, recycling, self-image and teen pregnancy
SOURCE: Foothill Middle School