New course confronts polarization

In a classroom with many students and observers and a camera, the jury foreman reads the verdict from a lectern.

For years, Ellad Tadmor watched as increasingly emotional, polarizing debate opened deep divides in American society. He decided to do something about it.

“The question is, how do we get people to think critically about a given issue, based on a set of facts that everyone agrees on, and make an informed decision?” says Tadmor, a professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

That thought drove him to create Science Court, a system to investigate societal and political issues with reasoned, scientifically based presentations in a mock trial. Rather than picking winners and losers, it uses collaboration to reach consensus on controversial topics.

Just the facts

Science Court began in fall semester 2018, as a U of M Honors course with 17 students. They were charged with finding a controversial issue, researching the pros and cons, and arguing both sides before a judge and a jury of citizens.

The chosen issue: Shall Minnesota support a 1:1 technology program where all K-12 students receive a laptop or tablet for school and home?

The class comprised three teams: a legal team (divided into pro and con), which did the arguing; a science team, which determined the facts to be presented to the jury; and a media team, which documented and reported the entire experience.

“Our general argument was this is the wave of the future, the direction society is moving,” says freshman Kali Killmer, a member of the “pro” legal team. “It will … [help in] narrowing the gap between privileged and underprivileged students.”

From the con team, freshman Kylie Smith says they argued that “the current state of K-12 education K-12 can’t support this monetarily or systematically. … It would force teachers to do things they’re not prepared for and cause more problems than fixes.” Adds teammate Matthew Nichols, a senior: “It’s an uncertain benefit at an extreme cost.”

And the winner is …

On December 11, the 13-member jury announced its decision: The cons had won, 10-3. However, the jury also suggested several “third way” paths, including starting with only high school students, applying means testing for who gets a device, and funding intensive teacher training before handing out the technology.

One more outcome: “These were a fantastic group of students. It was inspiring to work with them and to see the seriousness with which they approached the work, and their enthusiasm,” says Tadmor.

Science Court will resume in fall 2019, with new students and a new issue.
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities