Picture of the cover of the Project Citizen brochure

What Is Project Citizen and How Does It Relate to Civics?

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Project Citizen is a project-based learning program created by the Center for Civic Education. It teaches students about public policy. It does so by leading them through the process of researching a problem and developing a proposal for the government to address that problem.

The program is based on a textbook developed by the Center for Civic Ed, and they offer both middle and high school versions of the text. There’s also a Spanish version of the middle school text available. The texts break the process down into a series of lessons. These provide resources for teaching concepts like “What is public policy?”

However, you could certainly incorporate this project into your course without having the book. It would be useful to have one or two copies of the book for reference (they’re cheap), but if you’ve got budgetary constraints you could definitely get by without having a class set.

An Overview of How Project Citizen Works

Project Citizen starts with an introduction to government and civics. Over the course of a few lessons, students learn the basic principles of our democratic society, the difference between public policy and private enterprise, and a little about what government can do to address problems.

Step One: Identify a Problem

The next phase of the project is to determine a problem. If you’re competing in your statewide showcase, there are may be a theme or some restrictions on what this problem can be. Recently, New Jersey’s showcase focused on issues that could be addressed by the state legislature. But you could also focus on problems at the county, local, or school level.

This is a group project, and so you need to find a way for the entire class to agree on a single topic. At the end, the students will be breaking down the presentation into smaller components and groups, so your ideal group size is somewhere around 16 to 20. If you had a huge class (32+), you might do two projects simultaneously. But normally, you want the entire class to work on one project together.

A recent example from New Jersey is a team that did not like Kyleigh’s Law – the law that created a provisional driver’s license and required young drivers to put a red sticker on their car. This high school team focused on a statewide issue. Another example is this middle school team who focused on their school’s one to one Chromebook program and problems associated with devices breaking. This is a local issue under the purview of the Board of Education.

Step Two: Research and Define the Problem

Once students have agreed on the topic, they need to do some research. This should include some traditional gathering of research and statistics. But you should also do data collection in your community – surveys, interviews, etc. This research should help define the problem and demonstrate that there is something that needs to be solved.

In the Chromebook example above, the students conducted a survey of 40 students in their school. They collected a lot of data that they could present in charts to define their problem – that students’ devices were breaking and there was an inefficient system for fixing them. They also researched other sources for views on Chromebook’s durability and incorporated those sources into their presentation.

Step Three: Identify Potential Public Policy Solutions to the Problem

After that, students need to start working on potential solutions to the problem. They should identify two or three potential public policy solutions. This is where kids often have misconceptions – they confuse private enterprise or charity with public policy. They should do some research on existing solutions that have been proposed as well as brainstorming novel solutions that haven’t been tried.

Once they’ve narrowed things down to two or three solutions, they should do some research on them. Has anyone tried these solutions before? Is there proof of their efficacy? What do people think about them? What are the pros and cons? If a legislator has introduced this solution, interview them to get their perspective.

The Kyleigh’s law group came up with three solutions: eliminating the decal, replacing the decal with voluntary reporting during car registration, and making the decal voluntary. They presented each option along with pros, cons, and an overview of legislative history.

Step Four: Choose a Solution and Make Its Case

Once the group has thoroughly researched the potential solutions to the problem, they need to pick one. They may not find a perfect solution, but they have to agree on one that they can support and advocate for. This is often the challenge of public policy – picking an imperfect solution that improves upon a problematic situation.

The Chromebook group agreed that the laptops should be checked out of a cart instead of carried home, soas to eliminate opportunities for damage. The Kyleigh’s law group opted to eliminate the decal altogether. In each case, the students explained why they made their choice.

Step Five: Develop an Action Plan

The penultimate step is to determine how to advocate for your chosen solution. This is where knowledge of the political and policy process becomes important. Students need to figure out who are the stakeholders with the power to address the issue and what levers can citizens pull to motivate them to action.

This could be a letter writing campaign, speeches at Board of Education meetings, social media activism, and more. But it should lay out in some detail how they can motivate the stakeholders to take action.

Step Six: Deliver the Presentation to Stakeholders

The final piece of Project Citizen is to combine everything into a presentation and deliver it to a group with the power to act. For a local issue, you might present it to the Board of Education or the City Council. You might present a statewide issue to your state legislators or to a legislative committee. But you can also start small with the PTA or school administrators.

This is where you can also decide whether you want to participate in the competition or not. There may be local showcase events near you, and each state has a coordinator who organizes a statewide showcase. In New Jersey, this is at Rutgers New Brunswick. These state showcases in turn submit their winners to a national showcase hosted by the Center for Civic Ed. To participate, the students must create a digital portfolio with their work. For example, they could create a website or a presentation hosted on Google Drive.

Project Citizen digital portfolio presentation about titled, "Chromebook Breakage."
This presentation is the Project Citizen digital portfolio for a middle school team from Edison.

If you participate in the showcase, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the requirements. There are four components – explaining the problem, examining solutions, proposing a policy solution, and developing an action plan. One part of the class presents each component, and each group has 4 minutes to present followed by 6 minutes of questioning. The complete presentation of about 40 minutes – a perfect amount of time for completing in one class period.

So How Does Project Citizen Relate to Civics?

I hope this is rather self explanatory. Through the course of Project Citizen, students will learn about the policy process, centers of power in their communities, and how they can have influence as citizens.

Project based learning activities like Project Citizen are an important part of making civics real for students. While this is a great framework, similar options are Youth Participatory Action Research,the Citizens Campaign’s Solution Civics, and C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition.

There are pros and cons to each form of PBL, and you may find that one is better for you than others. But at the end of the day, good civics education must incorporate some form of project based learning. We aren’t learning civics for the hell of it – we’re learning it to leave our community better than we found it.

Ultimately, this helps develop a student’s political efficacy – the idea that they can actually have an impact on their community. Without that, we don’t have a democratic society. We just have the appearance of one.

If you’re thinking about using Project Citizen but not sure, check out these examples of recent winners from New Jersey. And if you’re looking for some ideas to get your kids started, here’s a list of five Project Citizen ideas for school level topics.

Have you used Project Citizen before? What are your thoughts about using it this year?

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