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Teaming Up to Meet Global Challenges

by Tom Hanlon / May 9, 2022

middle school-aged students

I-Global is growing. And that’s good news for the world, as its future is in the hands of the young learners who participate in the program and work together on the challenges that our global society faces.

I-Global had a highly successful launch in Spring 2021. But the program has not rested on its laurels in its second year of operation.

I-Global was created to help middle schoolers from around the world connect with each other and learn what it means to live in a global society. The curriculum is based on the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations. The 17 goals cover issues such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Quality Education, and Clean Water and Sanitation.

“It’s a real learning curve,” says Janine Solberg, I-Global assistant director and a doctoral student in the College of Education’s Education Policy, Organization and Leadership department. “We’re willing to turn on a dime if we need to.”

She and Allison Witt, director of International Programs and I-Global, have turned on a lot of dimes in the last 12 months.

New Features in 2022

Changes from last year to this include:

  • Creating a far greater international mix of students (“Kids loved the program last year,” Solberg says, “but they wanted to interact even more with students from other nations.” Now, instead of primarily being in a group of kids from their own country and occasionally mixing with others, participants are placed in a group of students who collectively hail from multiple countries.)
  • Moving away from school-based students to home-schooled children and 4-H clubs (“With the pandemic, most US kids have been inundated with online learning, and most teachers were stretched to the limit.” Solberg hopes that will change in the near future and schools will once again be a prime source for program participants.)
  • Changing to a quarter system (“When our clocks change, it creates chaos for us. It’s a nightmare to handle.” Now, the program has four eight-week sessions, with breaks at the two time changes and at the end of the calendar year.)
  • Putting undergraduate students in charge (last year, grad students ran the show, and they are still very much involved, but beyond giving middle schoolers the international experience and the opportunity to learn from each other in the context of studying sustainable development goals, the program is “also geared to expose University of Illinois preservice teachers to online teaching and to teaching different types of students from around the world,” Solberg says. There are 21 student facilitators, most of them undergraduates.)
  • Giving undergraduates internship credit (“Last year, they just got paid; this year, they get internship credit as well.”)

Overcoming Language Barriers

If you’re wondering how language barriers are crossed, Solberg says the University of Illinois is the perfect resource for such a challenge. “We have so many international students here,” she says. “We had a group of students in I-Global from Italy, and they were struggling with the language, so we found a couple of seniors on campus who are majoring in Italian and they came to the sessions and provided the necessary translation.” Similar solutions have been found through students on campus who speak Mandarin, Bengali, Hindi, Kazakh, and numerous other languages. “We can always find someone,” Solberg says, adding that kids also use Google Translate to chat back and forth.

700 Students, 12 Countries

To date, more than 700 students, primarily ages 11-14, have taken part in I-Global since its inception in April 2021. The students represent 12 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Panama, Peru, South Korea, and USA.

Even with I-Global's expansion and success, Solberg says more enhancements are coming. Year 3, beginning this September, will feature more changes and improvements.

“We’re working on some processes,” Solberg says. “Right now, every registration goes through me. That’s not terribly efficient. But we have some great computer science people around here at the U of I. So, we’re working on it.”

Another potential change is working through the education department of embassies around the world to facilitate the process and introduce international students to the University of Illinois at an early age. And Solberg expects the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which just got its start with I-Global this year, will significantly add to the number of program participants next year.

Even with minimal Boys and Girls Club participation this year, the program grew substantially in Year 2. And that’s a primary goal.

“Allison jokes that one day I-Global will be just a little smaller than Amazon,” Solberg laughs. “But seriously, we want it to grow and continue to represent the University of Illinois and help achieve some of these sustainable development goals and solve world problems.

“Because, truly, the only way we’re going to solve world problems is through these kids. Middle schoolers still feel like they can save the world, and we want to nurture that. It’s absolutely inspirational to hear them speak.”