This week (March 6-10) marked the nation’s first-ever Civic Learning Week, which brought together students, educators, researchers, policymakers and other community members across the U.S. to reflect on ways to strengthen civics education.
As distinguished former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton opined this week, being a good citizen remains central to the functioning of the nation’s representative democracy. “American democracy was built on the assumption of an engaged and well-informed electorate,” he wrote in his latest “Comments on Congress” column. “It’s gotten a lot more complicated over the centuries, but if one core truth has remained constant, it’s this: If responsible citizens do not participate in the system, then the system will not work. It’s as simple as that.”
Hamilton is the founder and senior advisor of the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a non-partisan, educational institution that aims to improve the public’s understanding of the role of representative government, strengthen civic engagement and teach the skills that are essential to sustaining the nation’s form of representative democracy. To achieve this mission, the center, which is part of IU’s Office of the Vice President for University Relations, has developed an extensive array of free civics education resources, training sessions and activities that are used in classroom and other teaching and learning settings here in Indiana and all across the country.
Several of the center’s resources support align with Indiana’s adoption of a new civics education requirement for middle school students, which will go into effect at the start of the 2023-24 school year. These include CitizIN, a free, interactive tool that explores 200 years of Indiana history, and the Indiana Civic Health Index, which helps Indiana leaders better understand the status of the state’s civic health, while inspiring them to actively engage in dialogue and actions that improve the well-being of our communities.
Recently, the center has partnered with Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus to bring to Columbus, Ind., the nationally recognized program iEngage, a free, weeklong camp for students in grades 4-8 that is designed to provide area youth with an opportunity to learn how to make a difference in their schools, neighborhoods and communities. Winner of the prestigious 2022 Sandra Day O’Connor Advancement in Civic Education award, the program focuses on developing young people’s civic and political competence and strengthening their community and political engagement through inquiry-based civics projects in which they research and act upon local community issues. There is no cost to the Bartholomew County students who participate in iEngage at IUPUC, which will run from from June 26 to 30, with registration opening on March 15.
“We’re extremely pleased to bring this successful and award-winning program to Columbus,” said Valerie Pena, associate vice president for the Office of the Vice President for University Relations and executive director of the Center of Representative Government. “As Lee Hamilton has said, ‘for our democracy to succeed, we need to teach each new generation how to become informed and engaged citizens.’ Arguably, civics education has never been as important as it is today. And central to IU’s engagement in the life of our state is a responsibility to help educate our young people about the basics of our system of representative democracy and to empower them with the knowledge, skills and frame of mind to make real positive change in their communities.
“Our iEngage program reflects IU’s commitment to that responsibility and a sincere belief that we can engage students in a way that makes learning about civics fun, exciting and meaningful.”
The most recent Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey indicated that, after two years of considerable improvement, Americans’ knowledge of basic facts about their government had fallen to earlier levels, with less than half of those surveyed able to name the three branches of U.S. government. Such reports have led the center to redouble its efforts to reach teachers and students from across the country and also the world. (The center’s website has had millions of visits from viewers in more than 180 countries.)
Last fall, the center announced it had received financial support from a leading nationwide civics initiative for a new interactive project, “Everyday Civics: Tools for Daily Living,” that aims to improve civics knowledge among American adults. The center is partnering with Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana and Walters State Community College in Tennessee on the project.
The announcement came as the center also unveiled its new “Action Citizen” multimedia interactive, which has received funding and resource support from the Library of Congress, to introduce young learners to the importance of civic engagement. The first module of the project focuses on environmental topics and the efforts that government and U.S. citizens have led to protect and preserve the nation’s lands and vital resources.
The center will offer these tools in addition to Engaging Congress, Freedom Summer 1964, CitizIN and several other teaching resources, all of which are designed to provide insights into the workings of representative government and the role of citizens in the process.
To develop each of these learning tools, which are available for download on the App Store, the center partnered with Half Full Nelson, an IU-alumnus-owned design and game development company based in Indianapolis.
Read more about iEngage in Columbus.