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Using Project Based Learning to Improve Civics Education

Updated on October 10, 2017

It’s pretty clear that we can do a better job of teaching civics education and preparing the next generation to be active and engaged citizens. While there are a number of ways we can improve civics education, project based learning is an essential component of any good civics ed.

Project based learning gives students the opportunity to practice being a good citizen - whether they are researching a problem, advocating for a public policy, or interviewing a public official. It also makes learning related to civics more authentic and concrete because they can apply it. Finally, it increases their political efficacy and gives them a sense that they can have a positive impact on their community.

There are plenty of great opportunities for incorporating project based learning into your civics or social studies class, but here are three quick examples to get you started.

Example One: Project Citizen

One of the most common examples of project based learning in civics is Project Citizen. This is a curriculum developed by the Center for Civic Education, complete with a textbook and sample lessons. First, students learn some basics about how the government functions and about how public policy is developed. Then, they select a problem they see in their community and develop an action plan to address it.

Project Citizen is designed to be used in either middle or high schools, and you can adjust it to your particular students. Older and more advanced students might want to tackle larger issue affecting the state, while younger students or those who are newer to civics can stick with local issues that affect their school or their community. One project by middle school students examined their school’s policy regarding Chromebooks. Students were having problems with the laptops breaking and they were unable to get replacements. They developed a great action plan to improve the district’s policy.

The key end piece of any project, though, is making a presentation to a group of stakeholders. This is where students really get to apply what they’ve learned. Not only have they researched a problem and developed a policy proposal, but they are going to make the case for that proposal to the school board, city council, or some other group of stakeholders.

Students presenting their YPAR projects at Rutgers University.
Students presenting their YPAR projects at Rutgers University. | Source

Example Two: Youth Participatory Action Research

Another option is Youth Participatory Action Research, or YPAR, is similar in some ways to Project Citizen. However, it’s not a complete textbook and curriculum. Instead, it’s a framework for conducting research in your local school or community.

Similar to with Project Citizen, in YPAR students research a problem and develop an action plan to address that problem. However, YPAR places more emphasis on the research aspect and less emphasis on the action plan. Students spend a good deal of time meeting with community members and collecting information through surveys and interviews. There’s also an emphasis on exploring systems of oppression and trying to weaken them. The process is similar, but the guiding philosophy is rooted more in social justice and critical theory.

The culmination of YPAR should also include some form of presentation. That could be to a group of key stakeholders, but it could also be to groups in the community. The goal of YPAR is to raise awareness of the issue being researched, and so making presentations to parent groups, community groups, or other students helps accomplish that goal.


Option Three: C-SPAN's StudentCam Competition

A third and final example is C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition. In StudentCam, students create a five to seven minute video addressing the theme for the year - like “What does the Constitution mean to you?”

In the course of the project, students need to research their topic, find relevant video in the C-SPAN video archives, and interview public officials or experts who are knowledgeable about the issue. Once they have their information together, they need to edit it into a five to seven minute video documentary.

This project does require more access technology and greater technical skills, but it also comes with prize money. Students compete against other middle or high school students across the country, and they can win prizes for being the best in the region or category. The overall winners get aired on C-SPAN and are interviewed on air.

Pick One and Try PBL This Year

You can’t possibly find the time to do everything in one year, and so the important thing is that you pick one project and try it out. You might find that your students like making videos better, or you might find that they appreciate the research aspect of YPAR. Others might like the policy aspect of Project Citizen.

Regardless of which project you choose to implement, by incorporating project based learning into your class you’ll be doing a better job of preparing your students to be citizens. This is a critical component of civics ed. And it's a critical part of preparing the next generation of citizens.


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