I recently had a unique opportunity to participate in a new project organized by professors from the University of Minnesota, intended to encourage civil discourse and improve citizen engagement in decision making on issues that directly impact the public. The project, called, “Science Court”, was organized by Dr. Ellad Tadmor and an interdisciplinary team of colleagues from the university.  The idea for this project had been rumbling around in Professor Tadmor’s mind for a decade, inspired by his concern over the public’s increasing skepticism concerning the validity of scientific information and the lack of opportunities for citizens to weigh and discuss data on a subject of public importance. The website for Science Court describes it this way.

“Science Court is a project designed to combat polarization in American society and strengthen democracy. It is run as an interdisciplinary course in the University of Minnesota Honors Program, involving students from across the university. The students select a controversial issue and spend an entire semester studying it in depth to determine the facts (based on sound scientific research) and then argue it in a mock trial in front of a jury of    citizens with a mix of views and backgrounds. The public is engaged and educated through compelling audio, video and online content generated by the students about the preparations, trial and verdict.”

The question that the students researched for this mock trial was:

Should the State of Minnesota implement a 1-1 technology program in grades K-12 in public schools, assigning one device (laptop or tablet) to every student for educational use in school and at home?

For several nights, a group of 13 other jurors and I were presented information on a number of topics related to the question above. This included presentations on the impacts of technology on students’ physical and mental health, teacher attitudes, opportunity disparities, teacher training needs, student technology skills, educational outcomes, etc. The jury was then allowed to debate the potential merits and negative impacts of implementing such a public policy decision before reaching a verdict. Unlike actual jury trials, in this case, the jury, if it could not reach a unanimous decision for or against the policy, could develop a 3rd option.

This part of the experience was especially compelling, as I was once again deeply impressed with the genius of a deliberative jury process. When a group of citizens is given good structure/process, good information, and time to debate and dialogue around an issue, the outcome can be quite amazing. The conversation among the jurors was rich, polite, wide-ranging, and spirited. Everyone took their job seriously. Every one of the jurors was meaningfully engaged and willing to participate in the discussion. The most amazing thing was watching the way that 13 minds, working together, can thoroughly consider an issue and come to a decision in a relatively short amount of time.

Our jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Of the 13 jurors present to debate the issue, the majority was against adopting a 1-1 tech program and the minority were for it. There were also several additional recommendations and alternatives offered by some of the jurors.

A Few Thoughts on This Pilot Program

  • I admire Dr. Tadmor and other faculty members for working to improve the quality of civic life by developing this pilot project. Their proactive attention to trying to address a problem in civic life is admirable. Rather than simply sitting back and complaining, they put a tremendous effort into developing this course and trying to impact the way that their students engage in public life now and into the future.
  • I liked the fact that students did all the heavy lifting when it came to the research. Some of the research was thin or older than we would have liked, but they did a decent job of presenting it in an understandable manner. The experience of having been involved in this process will most likely never leave them, and I am hopeful that in their future careers, they will be part of a growing movement to bring greater citizen participation and engagement into the public policy making realm. After all, politics is the work “of the people”. We all create policies every day. Not all policy is developed in the hallowed halls of our states’ or nation’s capitols.
  • The students defined the way the issue would be researched and debated. This led to some gaps in the analysis. The jurors were not able to have a say in defining the problem, and so, some key questions they had were not answered during the presentations of facts. This made delivering a verdict much more difficult. For example, the jurors were not given any breakdown on the costs of such a program, which many of us decided was a serious omission. In a policy context, policymakers have to have this information in order to make a sound public decision, weighing costs vs. benefits and determining what trade-offs may be necessary to pay for it.

Overall, I would say that this pilot learning opportunity was a success, in that it was well-run, and provided deep opportunities for learning for everyone involved. Based on the feedback and recommendations of students, jurors and others involved, Dr. Tadmor and his team will be making a number of changes to the ways Science Court is implemented next year, with the hopes of making this honors class even better and more robust the next time around.

For more information on Science Court, see their website:  https://scicourt.umn.edu/


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