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Some High Schoolers Get a Lesson in Government Shutdown

Educators are prompting students to explore the scientific and environmental impacts of the shutdown.

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MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 07: Mirta Maltes a U.S. Park Ranger law enforcement officer stands near the road closed sign leading to the Everglades National Park on October 7, 2013 in Miami, Florida. The park is closed as the United States House and Senate are into day 7 of not being able to agree on a bill to fund the United States government. National Parks around the nation are closed along with other federal services.
School field trips to national parks are just one casualty of the shutdown, but some teachers are using the shutdown as a teachable moment.

The first government shutdown in nearly two decades is closing in on its third week. As Congress squabbles over budgets, debt limits and health care, constituents are feeling the pinch.

National parks and monuments remain shuttered, federal employees deemed "unessential" are temporarily unemployed and many government-sponsored research programs and clinical trials are on hold.

Students aren't immune to the shutdown's effects, either.

Meredith Gold had a message for Congress after her class field trip to Mammoth Cave National Park was cancelled last week, according to a local news report.

"At my school when we get into disagreements we compromise, work as a team, use leadership, have a positive attitude, and respect each other. I encourage you to do this in Washington, D.C.," the Kentucky fourth-grader wrote in an email to the state's delegation.

While that may be true, students can also learn a lot from the shutdown. Some high school teachers are capitalizing on that opportunity, sometimes out of necessity.

James Gorman, a science teacher at Northbridge High School in Massachusetts, was forced to switch up his lesson plan after a scheduled video symposium with NASA was cancelled as a result of the shutdown, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports.

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Instead of hearing from scientists on asteroid retrieval and utilization, Gorman's students learned about how scientific research is funded. Agencies such as NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health rely on federal dollars to fund programs and experiments.

Teachers can also work the shutdown into their lesson plans without having their class disrupted.

Steven Gibaldi teaches U.S. history, law and environmental studies courses at Port Chester High School in New York. His strategy is to prod his Advanced Placement History students to consider parallels between the political climate that led to the shutdown and historical events such as those leading up to the Civil War.

"The writing of the Constitution was successful because it was a bundle of compromises. The genius of the political system has always been to compromise politically," he says. "The lead-up to the Civil War is an example of our failure to compromise."

The same can be said of the events preceding the shutdown, says the former lawyer and 15-year teaching veteran.

"When we're discussing the events of the 1850s, I plan to draw the analogies to today, when a faction of one of the parties is using zealotry and refusing to compromise on some core issues," he says. "Whether it's a good analogy or not is for us to explore."

[Teachers: Learn how to bring 21st century skills to the classroom.]

Gibaldi is also prompting students in his other course to consider the environmental impacts of the shutdown. The FDA halted routine food inspections because of the shutdown. The Environmental Protection Agency is also largely shut down and therefore not monitoring oil spills and other potential hazards.

The effects on the environment may not be all bad, he says.

"National parks are closed. Does that have a potentially positive effect on the ecosystem?" he says. "The fact that there aren't millions of tourists traipsing through Yellowstone could be a hidden benefit of the government shutdown."

"I don't have answers, I just like to make students think and pose these questions," he says.

[Learn why student engagement nosedives in high school.]

Weaving the shutdown into lessons on history and environmental policy helps inform teens, but it also gets them more engaged with the material, Gibaldi says.

"I've long been an advocate of using breaking new stories and current events to enliven history," he says. "It's an absolutely essential way to get students involved."

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