11/04/2010 06:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Could the School Science Fair Offer a Model to Repair our Democracy?

As an antidote to the vitriol of the election, I have been imagining what our democracy could be if we baked civic skills into our K-12 curriculum -- if every student learned tools and tactics for working together to solve problems big and small in their own communities. Might that mean we would one day have more informed voters, and maybe even more appealing candidates?

Right before the election, the Corporation for National and Community Service issued a challenge to teachers, students, and youth organizations everywhere: help students translate what they learn in the classroom to action to improve their own lives and communities, a practice known as "service-learning."

Service-learning is one form of civic engagement that also has the virtue of advancing academic learning. For those not steeped in education and service jargon, service-learning refers to a way to help students master specific subjects or skills by applying what they learn to activities that make a difference for others. A foreign language student might develop conversational skills by helping a new immigrant learn about the United States. English students might practice persuasive writing by creating a public information campaign. Or history students might learn about World War II by recording interviews with veterans for a local museum. You get the idea.

And while this might seem like an "add-on," abundant research suggests that service-learning can not only increase students' sense of civic responsibility, but also improve attendance, achievement, and aspirations of students. It's simple -- applying what you learn in the real world to make a real difference, can be a real motivator to achieve.

But data also indicates that service-learning in schools is on the decline, and that the students who could most benefit -- those from disadvantaged backgrounds -- are in fact least likely to have these opportunities.

I've thought about this challenge for years -- how do we make service-learning a universal experience? And here is where I've come out: use the school science fair as a model.

Across the country and around the world, students of all ages learn science through an experience that requires them to formulate a hypothesis, construct and carry out an experiment to test their theory, and document and display their work. It's the way young students learn the scientific method, and the way advanced science students display their knowledge by immersing themselves in practical applications for scientific concepts.

Interestingly enough, the science fair grew out of an effort launched by newspaper mogul E.W. Scripps to promote a science publication for the lay public. Science fairs became popular in the late 1950s as Sputnik inspired increased attention to science education. Today, millions of students participate in science fairs in their own schools, and the best compete in state and national fairs for hefty scholarships sponsored by companies such as Intel, which even sends some of its winners to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

Now imagine if a "Solutions Fair" were as ubiquitous as the school science fair? The need is no less great than the United States's compulsion to accelerate science knowledge half a century ago. Today we have domestic challenges at every turn. We need far more innovation in the social sector, more people committed to solving problems, increased civic participation, and more engaged learning opportunities to keep students focused on education.

Here's how it might work. After learning about government, ecology, economics or any number of other topics, teams of students would identify a related community issue that concerns them, research it to understand the roots of the problem, and develop a theory about a potential solution. Students could explore the full range of potential actions -- such as advocating changing a rule or law, supporting a nonprofit organization that works on the cause, or organizing a volunteer effort of their own. They could go on to carry out the initiative, and then present their results at a "Solutions Fair."

This type of project could be meaningful at almost any educational level, from elementary school through higher education. It could be pegged to any number of points in the curriculum -- from the rights and responsibilities of the Constitution taught in elementary school to AP classes in Environmental Science or U.S. Government and Politics.

And like the science fair, it ought to be for learners at all levels. In researching The American Way to Change, I saw service-learning challenge top achievers to work to even higher levels, light up the faces of elementary school students, and send students on the verge of dropping out back to the classroom.

For example, when Montgomery College, a Maryland community college, designed a program to help struggling students finish high school and get a head start on college, it incorporated service-learning into the curriculum. For Zita Nagy, this service-learning experience gave her the motivation she needed to achieve in school. Before the program, she skipped school a lot, initially in order to work to help her family but later because school was "not a place where I felt motivated. I didn't see what the point was." A service-learning trip to the Red Wiggler Community Farm exposed her to a solar home, organic farming, and "community-supported agriculture" that provides produce to local food banks. As she planted seeds and harvested crops she "saw that by doing something little, I could make a big difference," she recalls. "I realized all the work that it takes to feed all the people on the planet." She was hooked. Additional service convinced her that she wanted a career with a nonprofit. As she became more confident and purposeful, she began to choose more challenging classes, including math, which had always been hard for her.

Sadly, stories like these are growing fewer, not because of the need, but because too few schools are incorporating service into the learning experience. Ironically, studies suggest that principals who do promote service-learning in their schools do so largely because of its impact on civic engagement, rather than engaged learning. In fact we can have both outcomes. The Solutions Fair might be just the way to do it.