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Students take on world's challenges

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For high schoolers, 20 years might as well be a lifetime. But hand them a problem that experts say threatens the entire planet if not solved in the next two decades, and they'll simply get to work. Perhaps the most hopeful sign for the rest of us: They'll have fun while they're at it.

A prime example was an ebullient group of teenage girls, a whirl of blue jeans and saris amid hundreds of teachers and students gathered for a conference recently in Boston. During the school year, they've exchanged roughly 1,500 e-mails between Mount Saint Joseph Academy near Philadelphia and St. Joseph's Convent School in Jabalpur, India. They've even had a few videoconferences in their quest to get to know each other and to hash out some practical means to chip away at global infectious diseases.

That's the topic they selected as participants in a new initiative called Challenge 20/20. Organized by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Washington, D.C., it engages students as young as pre-K in finding local ways to address 20 urgent issues - after they've thought about them first on a global level.

"In most private schools, they've been feeding students a line about 'global citizenship' for a long time. The trick is, how do they make it empowering, so [the students] really want to take action." said Bob Lapsley, a teacher at the Lakeside School in Seattle, which partnered with a class in Johannesburg for Challenge 20/20. After participating in this project, he said, his students are ready to move beyond theory and take their ideas "onto the streets."

The US-India team finally narrowed its focus to the need for sanitary medical supplies, particularly in two villages "adopted" by the Indian students. "We want to create a website - like an eBay for medical supplies like bandages, syringes, blankets, incubators - so that poor hospitals can put up on the Internet the things they need and wealthy hospitals can ... agree to send them those things," said American team member Amanda Fellmeth. They also raised awareness in their respective schools by giving talks to younger students about their research.

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