Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell found that her classroom chats about civics and local government were not catching students' attention. Mock trials in courtroom field trips allowed some students to play prosecutor and jury, but it wasn't enough.
"It was through being a judge and seeing the lack of understanding of the three branches of government that brought me to see the need for schools to see this information," said Campbell, a key player in a new learning exhibit christened last week at the Gus A. Stavros Institute in Largo.
Constitution Hall, an interactive display on the workings of government, was formed in a partnership among the Stavros Institute, Stetson University College of Law and Campbell.
The walls are lined with vinyl wraps displaying images of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court and the Washington Mall. At a computer station, students are quizzed through interactive computer games designed by Sheppard Software. In one game, the scales of justice must be balanced by matching each branch of government to its duties and philosophies.
After passing all of the interactive quizzes, students receive a certificate from Stetson.
Campbell recently approached the Stavros staff about the exhibit, curious about the potential to incorporate civics with the institute's other education centers. For years, the institute has been home to Enterprise Village, which offers hands-on lessons in business and government to fifth-graders, and Finance Park, which teaches eighth-graders about personal budgets, investing and credit.
To go with the Constitution Hall exhibit, the school district will teach a six- to eight-week course along with the curriculum designed for eighth-grade students before they go to Finance Park. An estimated 9,000 students from more than 28 Pinellas County middle schools are expected to participate in the program.
They will learn how laws are made and how citizens are affected financially, said Robin McGowan, vice president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, which is a partner in the Stavros Institute with Pinellas Schools.
"They already factored in their paychecks and they have these taxes coming out, but they had no idea what those taxes did. They now understand what those taxes are, what they are used for, and what they get back."
Stetson's College of Law designed the curriculum and assessed the academic needs for the program. Among the collaborators were dean of the college Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, and Stetson alumni Bonnie Foreman and Jim Martin. The college worked with Pinellas county educators to develop lesson plans.
"The idea is that you play a role, a student plays a role, in the democracy of our country," Pietruszkiewicz said. "The founding principles are that students can become involved at a state level, at a local level, on a national level."
The first classes of students to see Constitution Hall are expected in mid October.