Baylor School of Law, School of Education partner to study Sandra Day O'Connor's iCivics program
On April 30, a standing room-only crowd at Waco Hall enthusiastically greeted retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- the nation's first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court -- as she joined Baylor President Ken Starr for "On Topic," his series of conversations with high-profile leaders on contemporary issues facing the nation.
Prompted by questions posed by President Starr, Justice O'Connor delighted the audience with stories of her life, work and passion for civic education, particularly her founding of the innovative iCivics learning program designed to prepare young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st-century citizens.
Starr and O'Connor have known each another since 1981, when she was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals and Starr was sent by President Ronald Reagan to interview her for an opening on the Supreme Court.
Baylor's president also played a key role in preparing O'Connor for questioning prior to her confirmation hearings. Justice O'Connor reflected on that experience from three decades ago, while delivering the keynote address at a symposium on iCivics earlier in the day.
"He [Starr] was very impressive then, as he is now," said O'Connor. "If you have a bone to pick with my appointment, talk to Ken Starr."
At the On Topic event, Justice O'Connor and President Starr discussed Baylor's role in helping assess the effectiveness of iCivics, the justice's vision to reinvigorate civics education in the United States. Created in 2009 to introduce students, particularly those in the middle grades, to civic principles and ideas through an online gaming environment, iCivics aims to empower today's youth to become active participants in the democratic process. O'Connor's concern stemmed from what she perceived to be a lack of information and tools for students to understand civic participation and a belief that teachers needed better materials and support for civics education.
"It was my hope with iCivics that we could develop some games that young people could play on a computer to learn how things worked, how government works and how they have a role in it and how they can be involved. Now this is a big order, but it's doable," the justice said.
The iCivics project includes 16 online games covering a wide variety of topics, from immigration issues and constitutional law issues to local government issues, among others. In addition to the web-based educational games, iCivics provides classroom teachers with free lesson plans, discussion forums, webinars and student data tracking.
"I was thrilled that Baylor, with the help of your president here, agreed that [the university] would help us evaluate iCivics, see how it works, see how it's best spread around the country and used. It's been a huge help.
"Today, we're focusing as a nation on math and science and a little time on teaching reading, but civics is just not on the list. A good many of the states have stopped making civics a requirement in public schools. I think that's a tragic error. I don't think we can ever stop teaching every generation how the government works and how they're a part of it," she said.
Earlier in the day, Justice O'Connor attended Baylor's "iCivics Symposium" at the Waco Convention Center along with School of Education faculty and Baylor Law School representatives, as well as teachers from Waco and Midway public schools who participated in Baylor iCivics research.
From September 2011 through mid-April, more than 550 students in 19 Waco and Midway schools played one of the iCivics' games twice a week. As part of the research project, both students and teachers took pre-and post-assessments of their civic knowledge and recorded their reactions and understanding throughout the study period in reflective journals.
At a symposium accompanying Justice O'Connor's visit, Baylor School of Education researchers Dr. Karon N. LeCompte and Dr. Brooke Blevins presented preliminary findings on the effectiveness of iCivics as a learning tool by both students and teachers and the impact on students' civic understandings and dispositions. Justice O'Connor thanked the faculty for their study, the first independently conducted research project in the nation of iCivics.
"iCivics is an exciting and engaging program that has great potential to positively impact students' civic knowledge and ultimately their participation in the world around them," LeCompte said. "Our hope is that this research will provide some useful insight into how this gaming environment engages students in notions of citizenship and the civic process."
"This project has created a wonderful partnership between Baylor University and local area school districts," Blevins said. "We are excited about the positive impacts we are seeing as a result of implementing iCivics in classrooms. Together with our school district partners, we have seen a restoration of civics education in our area."
The Baylor partnership came about in April 2011, at an iCivics dinner sponsored by Baylor Law School and facilitated by Wendy May, JD '96, Baylor Law alumna and iCivics Texas State Coordinator. At that event, President Starr and Justice O'Connor discussed various ways in which Baylor could get more involved in iCivics. O'Connor invited Baylor Law School to develop a model that incorporated Baylor Law students into the iCivics classrooms, while asking the Baylor School of Education to conduct research on the overall effectiveness of the iCivics program in the classroom.
Inspired by Justice O'Connor's challenge, 25 Baylor Law student volunteers, called Baylor Law Reps, went into Waco and Midway classrooms to lead the "iEngage in iCivics" program. During this program, the Baylor Law Reps led the students through an "iPlan," an interactive lesson plan that corresponded to the particular iCivics game that the students would play that day. As part of a particular iPlan, the Law Rep led students through the process of debating a law or writing to their member of Congress.
The iPlans were created by teams made up of a Baylor Law student, a graduate student from the Baylor School of Education and an undergraduate iCivics intern. Each iPlan was designed to enhance and complement the different iCivics games and conforms to Texas educational standards (TEKS).
"The Baylor Law Rep Program has proven to be a phenomenal model and has created much excitement and support by Waco and Midway ISD students, administrators and teachers," said Berkley Scroggins, JD '10, assistant director of alumni relations at Baylor Law School, who helped develop the Law Rep program.
In June, Baylor created the iCivics Summer Fellowship program, sending a professor and two students to Washington, D.C., to work with the iCivics national team for eight weeks. iCivics fellows LeCompte, Baylor Law student Alaina Smith and recent Baylor graduate Amy Stone, BA '12, were to create additional iCivics lesson plans and curricula, write legal content for games and support outreach to state leaders.
"The fellowships provide an opportunity to plan the national roll-out of Baylor's model to other universities," said May. "We have already had a number of universities show interest in repeating what Baylor has helped iCivics accomplish in Central Texas."To watch video from Sandra Day O'Connor's visit and on iCivics Baylor initiatives, go to Baylor.edu/president. Learn more about iCivics at iCivics.org.