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Online Tools Help Area Students Share Their Election Views and Votes

October 28, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- The presidential election is a hot topic these days in Ruth Shunick's middle school classroom in McHenry, Ill. Through an online initiative called iVote! '08, Shunick's students are making known their presidential preferences -- and the issues that guide them -- not just to their own teachers and classmates but also to students in schools across the metropolitan Chicago region.

Beginning Oct. 29, Shunick's pupils, along with K-12 students in Chicago, Wheaton, Algonquin, Wilmette, Joliet and other communities, will be casting their votes for president. iVote! '08 -- an initiative of Northwestern University's Collaboratory Project -- will keep an online running tally of student vote until the victor is revealed on Election Day. (Watch the day-by-day vote count as it is cast at http://collaboratory.nunet.net/CollabJump/survey.cfm?id=1740.)

"I sternly believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate for president," says one McHenry Middle School student in campaign literature she developed and posted online. Republican partisans disagree.

"We know from research that the earlier people vote, the more likely they are to become lifetime voters," said Bob Davis, who heads up the Northwestern University technology outreach initiative called the Collaboratory. "We hope the students who participate in iVote! 08 come to realize that voting is an important of citizenship and become lifetime voters."

Supported with funding from the McCormick Tribune Foundation, iVote! '08 is designed to stimulate student interest in the electoral process, and give youngsters opportunities not only to vote but also to learn about the activities that go into presidential campaigns. Using online resources and information, iVote! 08 students have developed and taken polls, analyzed data, gathered material on the issues that matter to them and created campaign literature.

A student-developed September poll of 621 students participating in iVote! '08, for example, found that the environment, Iraq War and economy were youngsters' biggest concerns.

Nearly a quarter named the environment their foremost concern while nearly 23 percent said the war in Iraq was their primary issue. More than 2 out of 5 students favored a timeline for withdrawal of troops, although only 16 percent of them reported having a family member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Sixteen percent of the students cited the economy as their "most important issue," but, it should be noted, the survey was taken before the economic collapse and government bailouts began.

By a 52.3 percent to 28.3 percent margin, the polled students said illegal residents who have attended a U.S. high school, done well academically and have not been convicted of illegal activities should allowed to attend college or serve in the military. Thirty-seven percent said they want the government to subsidize organizations developing alternative fuels; only 18 percent were in favor of offshore drilling.

Health care was also on the youngsters' minds. More than a third said the government should provide health care for everyone, and one student in four said health insurance should be mandatory and the government should guarantee it for those who cannot afford or find it.

Where did these opinionated youngsters get the information that helps to shape their poll answers? Almost half cited television while one out of five said family and friends were their primary source of information. Ten percent reported paying little or no attention to news, while another 10 percent said they got their news from the Internet and almost 8 percent said newspapers and magazines inform their opinions.

In addition to creating surveys (http://collaboratory.nunet.net/ivote08/polls.html), many students also created posters that can be viewed online (http://collaboratory.nunet.net/ivote08/communities.html).

Online tools used by iVOTE! '08 participants included the Cybrary, Survey Studio and interactive maps. Students made use of virtual libraries of Internet resources to support research and education/advocacy campaigns with the Cybrary. Using the Survey Studio, they created personalized public opinion polls, collected data, and were able analyze their results. Interactive maps made it possible for iVote! 08 partcipants to share data and more broadly present their findings.

The Collaboratory is an easy-to-use, Web-based learning environment that teachers use to develop project-based activities aligned with Illinois Learning Standards. A Northwestern University initiative, it is funded by the State of Illinois and federal and foundation grants that provide project consulting, training and support to Illinois educators interested in improving student learning and achievement.

For information on the Collaboratory Project and iVote! '08 -- including the names of participating schools in specific communities in and around Chicago and examples of the work that resulted from them -- contact Roxana Hadad at Northwestern University's Collaboratory Project, r-hadad@northwestern.edu, (847) 491-2061, or visit http://collaboratory.nunet.net.