Red, white and blue streamers hung from the walls, and proud family members, educators and supporters looked on as the middle school students focused their attention on the tablets before them.
The participants of the PA Chamber’s inaugural Pennsylvania Civics Bee faced timed, multiple-choice questions like, “How did the U.S. Constitution address the problem under the Articles of Confederation that Congress had no power to ensure its laws were followed by the states?” (Answer: It created an executive branch to enforce laws) … and “Which of the following people have their face on U.S. currency but were not U.S. presidents?” (Answer: Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin).
If your immediate thought is – “Wow, those questions are tough!” You’re not alone! They’re civics questions, and civics isn’t a familiar topic familiar for many Americans today. In fact, the nation’s overall civics knowledge has fallen significantly, with nearly half of the country unable to name our three branches of government, and 79 percent of 8th graders now scoring below proficient in civics.
This alarming downtrend was the inspiration behind the PA Chamber’s first-ever Pennsylvania Civics Bee, which was held on Thursday, June 15 at the Commonwealth Charter Academy in Harrisburg. In convening the event, the PA Chamber partnered with the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Civic Trust, which kicked off the initiative last year to help reverse the decline in the nation’s civics knowledge, promote civics education among young people and encourage current and upcoming generations to be informed and engaged leaders.
As PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein told the assembled Civics Bee audience, civics isn’t just about teaching history. When taught effectively, it’s about giving students the tools to apply that knowledge so they can become active participants in their communities.
The Civics Bee participants had already proven themselves as leaders by making it to the Pennsylvania Civics Bee stage. They started their journey earlier this year by submitting essays to five regional chambers of commerce that described how they would use civics to solve a problem facing their communities.
The participating local chamber partners – the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County; the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry; the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership; the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and CREDC; and the Wyoming Valley Chamber of Commerce – judged the best essay submissions and held regional civics bees to determine the 15 winners who made it to June’s statewide contest.
At the Pennsylvania Civics Bee, after the first two multiple-choice rounds were completed and the answers were tallied, the students with the five highest scores moved on to round three. At that point, they were asked to give a three-minute presentation on the context of their winning essays to a panel of judges – Kathleen McKenzie, Highmark Vice President of Community Affairs with Highmark; Michelle James, Regional Membership Development Manager with PSECU; and Joanna Crishock, Vice President of Marketing and Commercial Planning with The GIANT Company.
The judges asked about how each student would work with community leaders to bring their plans to fruition.
The finalists shared an array of original concepts, including providing mental health services to elementary-age students to help reduce school violence; providing stress-relief outlets to students to combat youth vaping; working with homeowners’ associations to allow people to replace lawns with native plants; and more.
“Judging the first-ever Civics Bee was an honor,” Kathleen McKenzie said. “I was struck by the depth of knowledge the students displayed during the live question and answer section. The students’ essays reflect their profound commitment to their communities. The students showed what really matters to their generation by addressing an impressive array of subject from the opioid and mental health crisis to developing grassroots solutions to solving problems with the environment and the justice system!”
“As a health insurance company in Pennsylvania, Highmark Health is deeply committed to using charitable dollars to support events like the Civics Bee, which promotes civics education and commitment to our communities. Highmark Health is a long-standing member of the PA Chamber and its commitment to the vitality of our commonwealth. The Civics Bee is another example of how the PA Chamber supports initiatives which develop not just this generation of business leaders but the next generation of leaders, as well.”
Throughout the regional and the statewide contests, these students showcased their impressive knowledge of civics – but they also showcased exceptional, original ideas for making their hometowns a better place to live.
The goal of the Civics Bee aligns with the PA Chamber’s goals – to make Pennsylvania a better place for people to live, grow and thrive as we work to move forward civically and civilly, with respect for each other’s beliefs and ways of tackling the day-to-day challenges our communities face.
“These students were already winners before they even walked in the door,” Bernstein said. “By having the passion for learning and understanding our democratic processes, wanting to pass that knowledge on, and taking the initiative to come up with great ideas for working together to improve their communities, they’ve shown a level of leadership that proves they understand what civics is all about. And, it’s what the Pennsylvania Chamber and our partners represent.”
“We couldn’t be prouder of all they’ve accomplished, and we applaud them, their parents, teachers, and supporters for helping guide them through this process,” Bernstein continued. “We appreciate the value they’ve placed in civics education and we’re hoping that events like this light a spark and inspire more students across Pennsylvania to get involved in this incredible initiative in the years to come.”
“It was a pleasure to emcee this first-ever Civics Bee for the PA Chamber of Business and Industry,” said abc27 News anchor Valerie Pritchett, who led the students through each round of the statewide competition. “We had so many knowledgeable participants! It is inspiring to see our youth take an interest in how our government works.”
While the five finalists each gave remarkable presentations, Nathaniel Gushurst of Charles F. Patton Middle School in Chester County took home the title of 2023 Pennsylvania Civics Bee champion and the top cash prize of $1,000. His presentation took on the issue replacing water-intensive lawns with more ecological, native plants.
“It was really great to participate in the Civics Bee,” Nathaniel Gushurst said. “The event itself was very fun, and winning was incredible. I’m so glad I had this opportunity to compete, and I hope other people also get the chance in the future. Sharing my passion for the environment through this event was amazing, and I was so happy to see that other people shared that feeling. Because of this event, I was inspired to approach my own Homeowner’s Association and begin converting lawns.”
The Pennsylvania Civics Bee was covered across statewide media, and the PA Chamber plans to work with the U.S. Chamber Foundation and our local chamber partners on continuing and expanding this program into 2024 and beyond.