Flood zones and student motivation recover when students engage in authentic work


Megan and Molly

By David Neils

When students know they’re tackling real issues, they’ll put in real effort. Molly and Morgan, two 6th-grade students at Trail Ridge Middle School had an opportunity to tackle a real issue recently–the Colorado flood of fall 2013 that ravaged their community of Longmont, Colorado. Throughout the cleanup and rebuilding efforts, there was much to learn and many decisions to make. Anna Mills, Molly and Morgan’s science teacher, leveraged this opportunity through support from the International Telementor Program to provide authentic research and work for her students to help in those efforts with assistance from mentor professionals from the United States, Australia, Philippines, and Canada.

Molly and Morgan were interested in how irrigation ditches and the head gates that feed those ditches were affected by the flood and how they might be used in another flood event to minimize damage and destruction. Reid Kirby, a seasoned mentor from MasterCard, chose to work on this project with Molly. Justin Scharton, an experienced natural resource mentor from the city of Fort Collins, mentored Morgan.

Terry Plummer explains how this section of the ditch infrastructure was wiped out by the flood and the repairs made to it.

Terry Plummer explains how this section of the ditch infrastructure was wiped out by the flood and the repairs made to it.

It was evident by the messages shared throughout the project that these mentors have had a big impact on the work the students were doing. In addition, Terry Plummer, vice president of Left Hand Ditch Company, went out of his way to provide detailed information about his job. It sparked a bonfire in these students to make a difference. Here is one of Molly’s final messages to Reid:

“There are so many things to thank you for! You have helped me so much from things like research all the way to editing my paper. The ways you have helped me have set me up for success. My project turned out pretty good and we uploaded it to the website. This Saturday my teacher, my dad, my project partner, and me have a tour scheduled with the Left Hand Ditch Company. Over the summer I wish to continue working with the Left Hand Ditch Company. One of the biggest problems they face is when a flood occurs and trees are uprooted nothing is holding the soil down. So the soil flows down into the ditches and head gates. About every four weeks the company has to go and clean out the gate they predict this will continue for the next 12 years. I am really interested in solving this problem so if you have any advice I would gladly appreciate it. Finally, I would like to thank you for everything!” -Molly

Last Saturday, Molly and Morgan toured the flood zone again. They wanted to help with everything and see all they could see. Molly even wanted to cancel a dental appointment so she could stay longer.

These students are intrinsically motivated to learn and make a difference. All too often students are turning in the minimal work to get the grade they want without extending one ounce of energy more than required. Not so with Molly and Morgan. In fact the project is over, the grades have been entered and they now they are looking for ways to continue the project through the summer.

I’ve been in hundreds of schools since 1995 and I can tell you that this situation is unique. Typically by the 6th grade I’m witnessing a transformation from being intrinsically to extrinsically motivated and school becomes a solo journey with the student and their report card. Rather than viewing school as a set of limited resources available to blow the doors off with my interests, natural abilities and academic progress, students begin to view school as a series of hoops to jump through for some elusive prize down the road. Doing your best as a student is hard work and if you’re doing it for an elusive prize down the road, this creates incredible stress physically, emotionally, and mentally.

I believe all student work in school can be authentic, life-changing and life-giving. Molly and Morgan are great examples of this, and it’s worthy of a grand celebration. Just knowing as a student that you’re working on something real that people deeply care about produces unlimited energy and a passion to produce work of quality.

Thanks to Anna Mills for creating an environment in and out of the classroom where students thrive and intrinsic motivation rises back to the surface. Thanks to Terry Plummer for taking time out of his busy schedule to help with research throughout the project, attend the presentation and provide an incredible tour of his ditch infrastructure on request from Molly and Morgan. And a big thanks to Justin and Reid for being incredible mentors every step of the way.

​I hope over time that this story becomes the rule in education rather than the exception. If you’d like to help, give me a call: 970-481-9795 or send an e-mail to davidn@telementor.org.

For youth,


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