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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Visits Baylor Law School, Discusses Civics Education

May 7, 2012

A trailblazer in the U.S. Justice system recently visited Baylor University and Baylor Law School to discuss a pioneering method of teaching civics in the elementary, middle and high schools of our nation. From April 29-May 1 at Baylor, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the nation's first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court, talked about iCivics, a revolutionary internet-based, interactive method of teaching civics developed under her leadership, and the research project Baylor Law School and Baylor's School of Education undertook to discover the program's impact on civic learning.

The iCivics project includes 16 online games on a wide variety of topics, from immigration issues in "Immigration Nation" and constitutional law issues in "Do I Have a Right," to local government issues in "Counties Work," among others. In addition to the web-based games, iCivics includes free lesson plans, discussion forums, webinars and student data tracking.

The Baylor partnership came about in April 2011, at an iCivics dinner in Austin sponsored by Baylor Law School and facilitated by Wendy May, Baylor Law alumna and iCivics Texas State Coordinator. At that event, Baylor President Ken Starr and Justice O'Connor discussed various ways in which Baylor University could get more involved in iCivics. Justice O'Connor charged Baylor Law School with developing a model that incorporates Baylor Law students into the iCivics classrooms, while charging the Baylor School of Education with conducting research on the overall effectiveness of the iCivics program. With this charge, Baylor Law School and Baylor School of Education immediately began working on the iCivics program, forming a strong partnership with Waco and Midway ISDs and developing The Baylor Model.

Inspired by Justice O'Connor's request, Baylor Law School used 25 Baylor Law student volunteers, called Baylor Law Reps, who go into Waco and Midway classrooms to lead the "iEngage in iCivics" program. From September 2011 through mid-April, more than 550 students in 19 Waco and Midway ISD schools have "played" one of the iCivics' games twice a week. During this program, the Baylor Law Reps lead the students through an "iPlan," an interactive lesson plan that corresponds to the particular iCivics game that the students are scheduled to play that day. As part of a particular iPlan, the Law Rep may lead the students through the process of debating a law or writing to their member of Congress.

"This spring, when the Baylor Law Rep Program was developed, I served as a Baylor Law Rep in a fifth grade class in Waco I.S.D. This experience solidified my belief that iCivics is a program that can make a substantial impact on civics education," said Alaina Smith, a second-year law student. "The students were enthusiastic about iCivics and were happy when I visited, participating in discussion and diligently working to grasp ideas beyond what is typically included in fifth grade curriculum.

"One of the most rewarding experiences as a Baylor Law Rep occurred when the teacher told me that there were several concepts on a recent district test that her students were able to answer correctly because they learned the concept while playing an iCivics game--it was not a concept she had ever taught them. The teacher became a strong supporter of iCivics after seeing her students transfer the knowledge, and it confirmed to me the potential power of the program."

The iPlans were created by a team made up of a Baylor Law student, a graduate student from the Baylor School of Education and an undergraduate iCivics intern. Each iPlan is designed to enhance and complement the different iCivics games and conforms to Texas educational standards (TEKS). In addition to presenting the iPlan to the Waco and Midway ISD students, the Baylor Law Reps engaged each week with the students through the iCivics online discussion boards.

"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, director of the Baylor Law Rep program and assistant director of alumni relations for the law school. "The Baylor Model was designed in a way that the system can be replicated and implemented in every city in America. Through The Baylor Model, iCivics can and will expose every student in America to Justice O'Connor's iCivics program."

Justice O'Connor arrived in Waco on Sunday, April 29, and attended a dinner at President Starr's home with the Baylor Law Reps. On Monday, April 30, she was present at Baylor's "iCivics Symposium," which was attended by School of Education faculty and Baylor Law School representatives, as well as teachers from Waco and Midway ISD schools who participated in Baylor iCivics research.

During the symposium, Baylor School of Education researchers 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. Following their presentation, Justice O'Connor thanked them personally for their study - the first independently conducted research project in the nation of iCivics.

Later that day a standing room-only crowd at Baylor's Waco Hall enthusiastically greeted Justice O'Connor as she joined Baylor President Ken Starr for "On Topic," his series of conversations with high-profile leaders on contemporary issues facing the nation. At the On Topic event, Justice O'Connor and President Starr discussed Baylor's role in helping assess the effectiveness of iCivics.

"I was thrilled frankly 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. My goal is to get people all across this country better educated in how our government works," Justice O'Connor said.

On Tuesday, May 1, Justice O'Connor stopped at the Law School for several hours as she talked with 75 local schoolchildren who have "played" one of the iCivics games twice a week. Students in the 4th through 12th grades met with Justice O'Connor and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and participated in other civic events, such as a mock trial and an art project in which they made their own campaign buttons.

Based on their grade, the students were assigned to one of three groups with each group given time for a question/answer session with the Justices O'Connor and Jefferson. The children's questions ranged from asking about a typical day as a justice to the favorite part of being a justice. The well-informed students even asked about Justice O'Connor's early years as a female lawyer in a male-dominated field.

"The students in all the grades had prepared thoroughly for this day. Even the youngest students asked thought-provoking questions. You could see their excitement at the thought of meeting Justice O'Connor," Toben said.

Baylor Law's involvement with iCivics will continue well into the future. But the immediate plans call for Smith, iCivics intern Amy Stone and an assistant professor from the School of Education to spend eight weeks with the iCivics national team in Washington, D.C. The three will further develop the iPlans and The Baylor Model. Come fall, a new crop of Baylor Law Reps will move into the area classrooms and help more school children discover the fascinating world of civics.

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