September 19, 2011
Today's school children are more likely to know the names of the judges on American Idol than the names of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Baylor Law School and Baylor's School of Education are trying to rectify that situation by partnering with the Waco and Midway Independent School Districts to introduce iCivics to students in the fifth through 12th grade.
The brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, iCivics is a web-based education project designed to teach students, particularly those of middle school age, civics and inspire them to be active participants in the democratic process. The program is the vision of O'Connor, who is concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation and that civics teachers need better materials and support. A general lack of understanding about the way the courts work led to its creation, but since then iCivics has expanded to also tackle the legislative and executive branches as well.
In the first research project in the nation of the web-based project, Baylor's School of Education will conduct research to learn how iCivics is perceived as a learning tool by both students and teachers. Until mid-November, students will "play" one of iCivics' 14 games twice a week and will record their thoughts. Teachers will do the same. Baylor Law School and School of Education hosted a professional development seminar to discuss the project with participating teachers and introduce them to iCivics and its games.
Once teachers start using iCivics in their classrooms, Baylor Law students will volunteer with the classes as facilitators, helping students with civics concepts they might not understand and discussing concepts they have learned.
"The 'Law Buddies' will be a resource for the teachers and the students. They can provide additional insight and can help students dig a little deeper on the topics. We hope they will help the classes take the games to the next level and help the students process the information they have learned," said Heather Creed, assistant dean of Professional Development and Student Relations at Baylor Law School.
Baylor Law student Vince Handler is one iCivics volunteer. Handler says he has been interested in civics for quite some time and has consistently sought a deep understanding of the mechanics of both civics and politics.
"Unfortunately, I have found that a large percentage of citizens of all ages do not understand civics past a topical level," he said. "They see results of civics or hear about them on the news, but the majority of people just don't comprehend the details or how it all fits together. My guess is that most people just don't have enough interest to pursue a deeper knowledge in an area where they might think they have no influence.
"I believe iCivics will be a fantastic program for individuals as well as our community/country as a whole," he continued. "It is being introduced in middle schools and high schools, about the time the kids have a sufficient maturity and knowledge level to support gaining awareness of civics. The online games and curriculum speak to that specific maturity level and make learning civics very interesting."
iCivics includes games and curriculum, teacher tools, forums for teachers to interact with each other, webinars and student data tracking. Games cover 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.
Schools participating in iCivics research include Hillcrest PDS, J.H. Hines, Brooke Avenue, Lake Air Intermediate, Cesar Chavez Middle School and A.J. Moore High School in Waco ISD and Midway High School, Midway Middle School, Woodgate Intermediate and River Valley Intermediate from Midway ISD.