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Interdisciplinary Learning Through School History

By Samuel J. Richards
Interdisciplinary Learning Through School History

Student docents showcase 3D printed models of the historic 1912 and 1923 campuses of Shanghai American School as part of their Pudong Innovation Institute exhibit on May 30, 2023. (Photo Credit: Samuel J. Richards) 


Who knew flush toilets could draw so much interest?

In 1918, flush toilets were cutting edge technology at Shanghai American School (SAS) according to curators and docents at the 1910s exhibit in the school’s temporary museum of history.

In addition to toilet talk, sound waves emanated from the 1920s exhibit carrying SAS’s bouncy, optimistic 1924 alma mater Fair is the Name We Love. Student curators discovered historical sheet music and then used modern software to recreate a tune that likely hadn’t been heard in decades. Elsewhere students narrated a documentary about 1930s Shanghai, and lower, more nostalgic notes floated from a radio model in the 1945-1950 wartime exhibit. The 1920s exhibit centered around 3D printed models comparing the 1912 and 1923 campuses.

110 years after SAS’s first academic year, ninth-grade students in the school’s Pudong Innovation Institute (Inno) were organized into public history teams. Each team was tasked with creating an immersive exhibit highlighting the SAS student experience during their assigned historical era while answering the essential question “What gets remembered?”

Pudong Inno faculty leveraged place-based learning, interdisciplinary connections, and flexible scheduling to maximize students’ success and growth. Students became historical researchers, curators, designers, and docents as members of collaborative project teams while studying twentieth-century China in Asian history, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) in design, learning about waves in science, and examining voice and memoir while reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club (1989) in English.

The historical investigation was supported by a 1,300-document digital archive built using sources preserved by the United States State Department, Hoover Institution at Stanford, and Yale Divinity School. In addition to Asian history class, the flexible Inno scheduling model provided time for a series of history labs during which students learned about and applied historical research methods using primary and secondary sources related to their assigned era of SAS history between 1910 and 1950.

Grade 9 Inno students honed historical thinking skills through a series of history labs before expanding research methods to include a digital archive, field study, and meeting with a 1949 alumna. The research combined with design thinking helped them develop immersive museum exhibits that optimized UX and UI. (Photo credit: Erika Trnka) 

In his unit reflection, ninth-grade student Neev Jain wrote, “During the history lab workshops, we got acquainted with an assortment of artifacts concerning SAS in earlier times.” However, unlike textbook narratives historical sources did not provide the clarity students hoped for. “All of the research and studies we conducted required me to come up with innovative approaches to obstacles, note things from a selection of perspectives, and be vigilant and mindful of details that appear to be insignificant at first glance. Now that I think about it, all of these abilities that I've gained have value in the real world.”

This approach created authentic connections that encouraged learning according to Inno English teacher Michael Crachiolo. “I appreciated how students applied what they learned in Asian History to a context that is more real to them—the history of their school.”

Inno science teacher Erika Trnka agreed explaining, “The way students used critical thinking to make connections, displayed empathy regarding wartime conditions, and answered the unit question were well beyond what I typically expect from high school freshmen.”

Sophistication extended to UI and UX. Design teacher Alex Braden was especially proud of students’ “use of the design cycle to design, develop, and improve a wide variety of items for their museum exhibits. Several groups had a wide range of ‘artifacts’ that included 3D printed models of the school, hand-made signage, digital games, and AR goggles.”

Grade 9 students from Shanghai American School’s Pudong Innovation Institute ask 1949 graduate Betty Barr Wang questions about her yearbook as part of a field study day following her presentation sharing “What gets remembered?” at U.S. Consulate Shanghai in late March 2023. (Photo credit: Samuel J. Richards) 

In addition to the digital archive, the historical investigation included both a field study and speaking with alumnae. Students visited SAS’s historic redbrick 1923 campus and nearby International Community Church along with the U.S. Consulate where SAS re-opened in 1980 after being shuttered for 30 years. Furthermore, Pudong Inno was fortunate to have longtime Shanghai resident and 1949 SAS graduate Betty Barr Wang join students during their field study. Earlier in the academic year, Bridge to Terabithia author Katherine Paterson joined via video link and shared recollections of her family’s 1940s experience as wartime refugees in the SAS dormitories.

Ninth-grade student Alicia Bolstein expected historic student experiences to be very different from today. “I was quickly proved wrong,” she recalls. “Not only did students dance, sing, play sports, and perform in plays, but they also took classes a lot similar to now, did community service, had clubs and leadership roles, and much more."

110 years after SAS first opened and boasted about its high-tech flush toilets, Bolstein says, “It is likely that all my experiences will not be remembered in the next 100 years. I think this has helped me learn to capture the important moments in my life. If I do not, they might be lost forever, and some things I really do hope will get remembered.” 


Samuel J. Richards teaches history and politics at Shanghai American School in China. He is one of four founding faculty for SAS’s Pudong Innovation Institute.


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