Learning Civic Engagement

Smith STEM civic engagement project
By: Todd Martin
Engaging in complicated civic issues, Smith Middle School STEM academy students tackled a range of local challenges very close to home. Three of the groups qualified to move on to a state level conference in Austin.
After hearing from local leaders who visited the school earlier in the semester, seventh- and eighth-graders teamed up and researched topics regarding their own town, school district, neighborhood and school.
The research culminated with a video project they shared with parents and teachers. The top three advance into a statewide event called Speak Up! Speak Out! It is scheduled next February at the Texas State Capitol.
The top Smith Middle School projects and team members include the following in no particular order:
  • Hugs Not Drugs, eighth-graders Ivan Sandoval, Joanelis Rios, Meredith Buechi and Nicole Martinez-Cumba
  • Gender Equality, eighth-graders Audrey Frisch, Nykaela Burks, Ariana Motton and Jeannie Sebexen
  • Lack of Street Lights and Sidewalks, seventh-graders V'Jae Brown, Reanna Anthony and O'Shaun Brown
Explaining their experiences, students described a style of research different from their usual projects. “It was stressful at times,” said Brown, part of the group that researched the need for more street lights.
Seventh- and eighth-graders said they researched online sources, conducted surveys and put together video presentations. Along the way, the students labored to schedule time to work together, collaborating once a week in class and often outside of class.
Teachers Katie Drake and Caitlyn Gallenstein were impressed with students’ ability to handle the wide range of data and to meet deadlines while working as a team, much like the real world of work.
“We learned how effective collaboration can enhance the problem-solving and brainstorming aspects of our work and how meeting deadlines keeps a team moving forward,” Drake said.
“I am very proud of the hard work my students have done and love the way they showed passion for subjects of interest in their community,” Gallenstein said. “I think this really gives students the opportunity to show that they can make a positive change in the world around them.”
The street light group knew that some of their peers who walk to school experience dark streets. They found that local media and the public have also inquired about the concern through city authorities.
One of the groups of eighth-graders that made the top three looked into gender equity on their own campus. They surveyed students and school staff members and included their personal experiences.
They found that perceptions are different for males and females. While girls feel more targeted for dress codes violations, boys tend to feel they are seen as inferior academically, the group members explained.
The eighth-graders said they enjoyed hearing different views and said they worked through a range of issues including sorting through team members’ separate responsibilities and finding the best technology presentation solutions.
Another eighth-grade group that finished in the top three looked at the issue of drug prevention.
They surveyed peer opinions and studied online facts. The group members also met with campus leaders about planning activities during Red Ribbon Week next fall.
Students began the Project Based Learning unit in September with a conference at the school that attracted community leaders from city, military, college and school district sectors.
Nine Smith STEM Academy teachers learned about the civic engagement project during a summer training at the University of Texas.
“My hope,” said Gallenstein, “is that they continue to shine a light in the world around them and spread the idea that students have the power to make a positive change. All it takes is an idea and a little bit of help along the way.”