Nine middle school students stood on a stage and listened as Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs asked them a series of questions about the inner workings of our system of government.
With the clock ticking and spotlights shining, the students punched their answers into an electronic tablet and hoped that weeks of studying paid off.
It was the first-ever Washington State Finals of the National Civics Bee, and it was dramatic, a little bit stressful and a lot of fun.
“Before this, I barely knew anything about civics,” said Benjamin Wu, a Tacoma seventh grader who was named the overall winner. “Now I know a lot more about Supreme Court cases, amendments and the Constitution. It’s really important to know about civics because it guides us to action and gives us a better future.”
That response is exactly why the Association of Washington Business Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted the event. In this time of division and polarization, it’s important to show young people they have a role in our democracy, to teach them how to engage their fellow citizens and even show them how to respectfully disagree with one another.
On this point, at least, there is widespread agreement. A poll last fall from iCivics and More Perfect shows strong support for civics education across party lines with nearly 70% of voters agreeing civics knowledge is more important than it was five years ago.
The journey to Civics Bee finals began early in the year when the students took part in regional competitions organized by local chambers of commerce. Students submitted essays in which they described a problem facing society, along with their ideas about possible solutions.
Topics included homelessness, littering, and the restoration of historic Fort Vancouver. Wu took on the subject of equity in computer science by calling for action addressing what he described as “the new digital divide.”
The top students from those regional competitions went on to the finals, which took place June 1 at the William M. Allen Theater inside the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
The event had the look and feel of a game show, complete with the secretary of state as emcee and a panel of distinguished judges consisting of Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction; Jan Yoshiwara, the retired executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges; and Brier Dudley, editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press public service initiative.
At the end of the first round of questions, the top five students advanced to a second round in which they gave speeches about a problem facing our society and their proposed solution to it. The judges asked questions about their ideas and assigned scores.
For winning first place, Wu received a $1,000 cash prize and two tickets from Alaska Airlines to fly to Washington, D.C. to continue his civics education. Devin Spector-Van Zee, a home-schooled sixth grader, received $500 for second place, and Ye Joon Ameling, a sixth grader at Vancouver iTech Preparatory in Vancouver, received $250 for third place.
It was fun watching the excited reaction of the students when the winners were announced. And it was gratifying to be part of an effort that seeks to energize America’s civic life.
Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.