Students survey campus to raise awareness about democracy

November 20, 2014
UW-Platteville campus

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Forty University of Wisconsin-Platteville students enrolled in three sections of the Introduction to Politics course conducted a campus-wide survey to raise awareness about the nature of democracy in the United States as well as assess how informed UW-Platteville students are about the U.S. government and then see how the survey results compared to national trends.

The Introduction to Politics course is taught by Dr. Shan Sappleton, assistant professor of political science at UW-Platteville, who also teaches Comparative Politics, International Relations and African Politics.

After classroom instruction about the critical elements of U.S. democracy and the importance of being well informed about political issues and actively engaged in the political process, the students worked with Sappleton to develop a survey. Some of the questions included, “Who is the current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?” “How many representatives are there in the U.S. Congress?” “In what year did America gain its independence?” and “What is the difference between Obama Care and the Affordable Care Act?”

After the polling instrument was developed, each of the student groups canvassed 50 male and female UW-Platteville students from a variety of standings and disciplines in different locations on campus.

Sappleton said that overall, survey results showed that many UW-Platteville students were well informed about which branch of government has the constitutional power to declare war and could name at least two of the recent U.S. vice presidents, among other topics. Results also showed that many students were unable to name the current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court or the Senate representatives in their home states and were not aware that there are no differences between the Affordable Care Act and Obama Care. On average, the on-campus findings reflected the national trends.

“This class project helped me realize that some students are not as active or knowledgeable in politics as I thought,” said Megan Kubatzke, a sophomore reclamation major from Greenfield, Wis. “When you go to college, especially if you live on campus, your world becomes the campus and it becomes really easy for the rest of the world to fall away. So unless you are active in keeping yourself up to date with current events, it is really hard to know what is going on outside of the campus bubble.”

"It is important for all of us, as citizens, to be politically engaged because we can help shape our country,” Kubatzke said. “Being informed and engaged begins with each individual, however. Each of us has to make that choice to care enough about our country to learn about the issues and then form opinions that can be reflected in how we vote and how we engage ourselves with the politics in our country.”

“The most important thing that I learned from this project was that there was a significant number of students who did not know the answers to some of the questions that I thought were common knowledge to Americans,” said Brian Peterson, a junior mechanical engineering student from Appleton, Wis. “Ralph Nader said that ‘If you're not turned onto politics, politics will turn on you.’ I believe that this is true, unfortunately, and Americans often feel sucker-punched by the local, state and federal officials they elected into office because they are not as active in politics as they should be.”

In addition to conducting the survey, students wrote a discussion paper addressing their methodological approach and central findings; the link between political participation, civil society and the strength of democracy; and the importance of citizens in a democracy to be politically informed and engaged.

In the papers, they also addressed the extent that UW-Platteville students fit or deviated from the national trend regarding how politically knowledgeable and informed Americans are on average and the implications of their research regarding the strength of America's democracy.

Group members also gave in-class presentations based on their discussion papers that included a question-and-answer period.

“This project helped students learn that democracy requires more than voting,” said Sappleton. “They learned that active participation and informed citizenship are both critical elements of a democracy.”

“Initially, students were hesitant to conduct the survey and then present their results, but once they got started, they became invested in the learning experience,” said Sappleton. “When presenting, many of the students made insightful statements about systemic as well as personal changes that need to occur so that people are politically more aware and informed. They realized how important it is to be politically knowledgeable, informed and engaged citizens.”

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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