When Community Middle School eighth grader Kathryn Khaw was conducting research for her group’s Grade 8 Exist Assessment project, she was stunned to find a key statistic about Peru’s drinking water — it contained dangerously high levels of lead in some places.

Khaw’s group worked tirelessly for a week to research solutions to the problem. The solution they recommended was to run a system similar to the NEWater system that is used in Singapore. The system, administered by Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, treats purified wastewater through a microfiltration and reverse osmosis process using ultraviolet light to transform it into drinking water.

“I didn’t expect that Peru’s water would be so bad,” Khaw, a Plainsboro resident, said. “It’s really interesting to see how far we’ve come.”

The group’s work paid off, as it was deemed one of the winners of the project after presenting its findings, research, and solutions to a panel of judges consisting of residents, school board members, and other community members. Not only did the group members have to understand the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and apply what they have learned in school to researching and solving the problem, but they had to present their case effectively to the judges.

“It allowed us to really apply the knowledge we gained as eighth graders, and we showed that we have matured,” Khaw said of the experience, as she and a small group of other winners gathered in Community Middle School’s foyer during their last day as middle school students.

The projects the students completed are used to measure whether students are able to solve real-world problems using what they have learned at WW-P. Prior to moving on to high school, all 860 eighth graders in the district put themselves in the shoes of officials from around the world to find solutions within various countries that would meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015 (see the WW-P News, June 10).

The goals, established by the UN, include: End Poverty and Hunger, Universal Education, Gender Equality, Child Health, Maternal Health, Combat HIV/AIDS, Environmental Sustainability, and more.

The program required students to research the MDGs and then apply their knowledge as country delegations charged with defining the country’s root problems, identifying challenges and barriers to growth, and then designing an action plan with criteria-based solutions to enable their nation to meet the time-sensitive development targets.

The country teams then presented to a group of community volunteers who acted as United Nations officials to evaluate the students based on a set of standards for effective communication and practical problem solving.

The top teams were awarded a fictitious $50 million development package. In addition to winning the development aid, the top-scoring teams will make their presentation to an authentic audience relating to their cause through Skype.

The coordinator of the program, Mark Wise, the district’s K-12 curriculum supervisor, hopes that the students will head off to high school with a sense that they can manage their time effectively and build upon their experiences.

One concept about the program that students especially liked was the freedom they had to take the lessons they learned and transform it into solving a real-world problem — all on their own.

Community Middle student Julian Chan, also of Plainsboro, who worked on the Peru project with Khaw, explained that the students studied the MDGs but then were given one full week before the presentations on June 10 to work on solving a real problem. They spent four hours a day from first through seventh periods conducting their own research, putting their presentations together, and putting the finishing touches on their work.

Chan said the goal of the assessment project — that students will become “self-directed learners and communicators” — really came through in the end. What he liked the most, though, was “the opportunity to do this and make a change and help others.”

“We had to make sure we knew what the project was,” he said about the process. “We had to create a brief action plan and be aware of what the challenges were” in implementing the solution.

For Community Middle School students Shweta Chopra, Jake Fine, Andrew Hitselberger, and Alisha Daley, all of West Windsor, another group of winners, the solution to tackling poverty and hunger in Indonesia also involved researching solutions that had worked elsewhere. The group found a solution for their problem in the NERICA initiative (an acronym for New Rice for Africa), which cultivates a new blend of African and Asian rices as a food source in disadvantaged areas of the world.

Daley explained that the students found that providing the opportunity for growing the rice locally in Indonesia would create jobs and help increase food supply.

“We realized that what we were doing was actually real,” said Daley about the project. “It will help us in the future.”

Community Middle School student Lindsay Patla of Plainsboro worked on a winning group project that examined reversing the spread of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria in Kenya. She said her group determined that the UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Funds) program already in place in the country would be helpful, “but a lot of people can’t get to it,” and a more widespread effort is needed.

Additionally, supplying more mosquito nets could also help in curtailing the spread of the diseases. “It’s only $5 a day for a mosquito net,” said Patla. “That’s lunch money to us. To them, it can save lives.”

Coming to these realizations was another benefit of the Grade 8 Exit Assessment Project. But students recalled time management as one of the most valuable lessons.

“The need to stay on task is the biggest thing,” said Patla. When it came to “crunch time,” students also needed to make adjustments for last-minute problems. “There was always something that didn’t go as planned,” said Patla. “We all really wanted to perform well.”

Students were grouped by their teachers, who matched students who had studied varying millennium goals. This meant students were placed with others with whom they’ve never worked in the past. “We got to make new friends,” said Khaw.