As Upper School students enrolled in Advanced Studies in Government and Politics began to wrap up their year-long research projects, they had the opportunity to put their learning into action by discussing their topics with a North Carolina legislator, who said he planned to discuss their views and recommendations with his colleagues.
The research project — known on campus as “the Big Dig” — is a capstone experience for students with a passion for government and politics. The seminar-style course, which Upper School History and Social Studies Department chair Mark Laskowski called “essentially an ‘Advanced Advanced Placement’ course,” is designed to allow students to look closely at issues involving government and politics at the local, state, national and international levels. It was developed in part with funding from a grant from the Pope Foundation.
The course’s teacher, Matt Thomas, said students have been working all year researching a political and/or social issue of their choosing and then writing an in-depth policy paper.
“The focus of the papers is to provide a historical overview of the issue, the current state of North Carolina laws, regulations or government policy around the issue, and its impact on individuals in North Carolina,” he explained. “Students also included a comparison of how other state governments are addressing the issue and what policies or reforms our state should adopt moving forward. They completed these papers a few weeks ago and spent the last weeks of the semester creating 10-to-12-minute video presentations of their research.”
Topics this year included:
Logging and Carbon Emissions in North Carolina
The Hidden Problem - Human Trafficking in N.C.
Bioethics in Precision Medicine
North Carolina Commercial Fishing
Mental Health in the N.C. Foster Care System
Another important component of the course is experiential learning, including meeting and working with public policy professionals, which in the past has included organizations such as the State Department and the U.S. Institute of Peace. This spring, as COVID restrictions on campus began to ease, the department connected with North Carolina Rep. Grier Martin as a natural point of contact in state government for whom the students’ research and recommendations would be relevant and actionable.
Martin, whose district includes Raleigh, visited Ravenscroft on April 22, meeting with small groups of Advanced Studies students to discuss their topics and proposed policy changes. As has been the case with previous visits from government officials and career diplomats, Martin spent time exploring students’ understanding and viewpoints on pressing topics in government and politics as well as sharing his own.
“I was extremely impressed with the way Rep. Martin interacted with our students,” Thomas said. “He made it a point to say that, as a politician, he could talk at them for hours but that he wanted to spend his time with them hearing about their work and, most importantly, what he as a state legislator needed to know about how to address the issues they were now experts on. He ended each of these conversations with the question, ‘OK, what is the most important thing about this issue that I need to know and bring back to share with my peers?’”
Students who participated in these discussions with Martin were also enthusiastic about his approach.
“Meeting with Rep. Martin was a great experience,” Gray Baker ’22 said. “He listened to us and gave information on what he has been doing recently and how he wants to help solve many of the problems we researched. It was great talking to him about my project researching food insecurity in North Carolina and how he felt it could be solved in our community.”
“Having Rep. Martin devote an hour out of his day to talk with our Advanced Studies in Government and Politics class was an experience like no other. He was an amazing listener and appeared to truly care about the research we conducted throughout the year,” Brooke Mikles ’22 added. “It made us all feel like we actually made an impact on our state, and it was great to be able to talk with him.”
Martin, who is in his eighth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives, is an attorney, a veteran and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. In his tenure in the House, he has chaired the Transportation Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee; the House Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee; and the Joint Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Management Recovery. He currently serves as chair of the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission. He has received several awards, including the Legislator of the Year Award from the N.C. Disabled American Veterans and the Defender of the Environment Award from the N.C. League of Conservation Voters.
“The students overwhelmingly enjoyed having Rep. Martin visit and the opportunity to talk about their research with not just someone who was genuinely interested in hearing about it but who was actually involved in crafting or voting on legislation and policies that they had talked specifically about,” Thomas said.
Laskowski added, “To me, this experience is the ultimate in ‘changing your world’” — making this project not only a capstone experience for this particular course but for students’ engagement with our Lead From Here citizen leadership framework as well. “We don't know what might happen next [with these issues at the state level], but we can take pride in the efforts of our students.”