Engaging Youth with Public Policy

Middle School Lessons to Counter Truth Decay

by Andrea Prado Tuma, Alice Huguet

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Coping With Climate Change: What We Can Do to Fight It

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Overcoming COVID-19: What Scientists Know and What Policy Can Tell Us

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"Let Me Sleep!" Why Teens Need More Sleep, and How Policy Could Help

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New in America: Challenges Faced by Immigrants Who Are Children and Policies That Could Help

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This tool is part of the Countering Truth Decay initiative, which is focused on restoring the role of facts, data, and analysis in U.S. political and civil discourse and the policymaking process. RAND researchers developed this educational tool, consisting of five sequenced lesson plans for middle school teachers, with the goal of improving RAND's outreach to youth in ways that also help counter Truth Decay. The lesson plans will help students understand the following: how public policy relates to their own lives, why it is important to learn about public policy topics from credible sources, and how to be more critical consumers and creators of information. The lessons culminate with students applying what they learn about a public policy topic—via a question-and-answer (Q&A) video with a RAND expert, a student-friendly Q&A document, and their own investigation into the topic—to create an information product that can be used to communicate policy-relevant concepts to their peers.

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Video 1 Overcoming COVID-19: What Scientists Now and What Policy Can Tell Us

Elisabeth

Hi, I'm Elisabeth, and I'm in seventh grade, and I want to know more about COVID-19.

Mahshid

Hi, I'm Mahshid Abir, and I'm an ER doctor at the University of Michigan and a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Elisabeth

What do you think middle schoolers like me should know about COVID-19?

Mahshid

This is the most significant pandemic we've had in 100 years, so this is not something that happens that often. And also, although it may appear as if there is no end to the pandemic, this will eventually end. And we all just need to do our parts in trying to stay healthy and get vaccinated and keep our masks on and our hands clean. And those are some of the things that everyone, including middle schoolers, should do. But I think the most important thing to know is that there is light at the end of this tunnel.

Elisabeth

So recently, I got COVID, and I was isolating for five days away from my family in my room. When will I be able to be in a room without my mask, with my friends or family, again? And do you think I can now?

Mahshid

First of all, Elisabeth, I hope you're feeling better. And currently, the recommendation from the CDC is five days of quarantine for people who get COVID-19. So based on that recommendation, you should be fine interacting with your family and friends as you normally would. But I would highly recommend that when you're indoors, keep your mask on, and again, a lot of hand-washing. But outside of that, you are now at low risk of transmitting the virus to other people.

Elisabeth

What are some signs at the very start that someone has COVID, because I wasn't for sure whenever I started having a sore throat and stuff? So what are some signs that you think someone definitely has COVID, with— that you can tell without a— to see if you should get a test or not?

Mahshid

It's hard to know if you have COVID or not for a couple of reasons. One, that sometimes people with COVID feel perfectly fine, especially early on, and they may have no symptoms, and sounds like that's what you may have experienced. Also, the symptoms for COVID can seem like the common cold or the flu. So it's very hard sometimes to tell between those. But, specific to COVID, one of the first symptoms that some people experience is they can't smell things as well as they used to. So that's one of the symptoms that is quite unique to COVID. But also you can feel tired; you can feel like you have the sniffles; you can have a cough, a sore throat; you can feel nauseous. But generally, if you're not feeling like yourself, it's probably a good idea if you have any of these symptoms to get tested just so you know if you have COVID or not, and to make sure you're not spreading it to other people.

Elisabeth

How does a mask fight against COVID? I know it does, but I don't really know how.

Mahshid

So as you may know, COVID spreads through air particles. And what the mask does is that, if you have COVID, it's a barrier. So if you're breathing out these virus particles, the barrier prevents the virus from getting far, or so many of the particles spreading around in the air, so other people get it. And if you, or your friend who's hanging out with you but doesn't have COVID, and if they have a barrier in front of their nose and their mouth, the virus can't get into their body. So by wearing a mask, the person who has COVID stops the spread, and other people who don't have COVID can help themselves not get COVID if they wear a mask.

Elisabeth

What should my school be doing to protect students from COVID? And if they already are, what should I be doing to protect myself and others from COVID?

Mahshid

There's a number of things that schools can do. One is to require that all kids wear masks at all times while they're on campus. Also, they can require that all kids be vaccinated, which is also another very important thing. Another key to preventing spread of COVID in a school is making sure that there's good ventilation, good air movement. So, especially when the weather gets warmer, making sure that windows are perhaps open, or that every class has a properly-equipped air filter to make sure that both air is circulated and potentially filtered, and clean and clear air is coming into the room. Lastly, schools can test kids. So, I have a middle schooler in sixth grade, and his class—his school—tests for COVID once a week. And that's really important, because then you can see whether any of the kids have COVID or not, if any of the teachers have COVID, and make sure that they stay home until they're feeling better.

Elisabeth

Do you think my school should be doing, like, a unit on it or something to teach us about COVID a bit more so we understand it? Should I recommend that my teachers do that?

Mahshid

I think that's an excellent idea, Elisabeth. So, there's two aspects to this. I think learning about history and other epidemics and pandemics will really help kids to understand that we've been through this before, and we've survived these scenarios. And also, you know, you're the youth, you're our future. So by teaching you about this pandemic, you guys may come up with the ideas for how to get over this one or the next pandemic. So I think it's a great idea for you to recommend to your teachers to create a unit.

Mahshid

So, Elisabeth, you asked a really good question about what you and your friends can do in the setting of this pandemic. So I think one of the most important things is writing letters to your policymakers and lawmakers. So whether it is in the city you live in, or the state that you live in, or even a letter to the president. And also, you mentioned businesses. And, for example, a supermarket that I go to, I actually wrote to the management of that supermarket because I was not happy with the fact that their employers weren't wearing masks, and masks weren't required of the customers. So I think that all of us, the more voice we lend to making people do the right thing so we all stay healthy, the more ahead we're going to be in this pandemic.

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Video 2 New in America: Challenges Faced by Immigrants Who Are Children and Policies That Could Help

Colette

I'm Colette. I love animals, books, and art, and I am really excited to be able to learn about immigration from such a good source.

Shelly

Hi, I'm Shelly Culbertson. I'm a researcher at the RAND Corporation, and I study immigration.

Colette

How did you become interested in the topic of immigration?

Shelly

I used to live in the Middle East, in Qatar, and I lived there during the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Civil War has displaced almost two-thirds of its population. Since I was studying education, I wondered, well, how are the kids of all of the Syrian refugees becoming educated? And so I started studying that. And then, over the past eight years, one thing led to another, and I have conducted a number of studies about refugees and now immigration into the United States.

Colette

How many immigrants are there across the world?

Shelly

So a migrant is someone who lives in a country that's not the country of their birth. And there are 281 million migrants in the world, which is about four percent of the entire world population. And for example, I lived in Qatar for a while. And when I lived in Qatar, I was a migrant. An immigrant is someone who has moved into your country or, in this case, has moved into the United States. And the United States has 51 million immigrants. Also, for example, my husband's from Italy, so he's an immigrant. In the United States, there are 18 million kids who have either a mom or a dad who is an immigrant. And that's about one in four kids, which is a pretty big number. This is a lot of people. A lot of people have picked up their entire lives and moved from one country to another. And speaking from experience, that's not an easy thing to do.

Colette

What makes families immigrate to the U.S.?

Shelly

The United States has the largest number of immigrants in the world. We have about 51 million immigrants. Immigrants come to the United States for a lot of reasons. The most common reason is economic. People come for a better job or because they're fleeing poverty. People also come because they want to go to college, because some of their family is here, and some are fleeing violence or gang problems in their own countries.

Colette

What are some of the challenges that immigrants face when arriving in the U.S.?

Shelly

When people first come to the U.S., they face some challenges. Adults have to learn how to work in a new environment and settle into a new community. Adults and kids both need to learn how to speak English. Kids need to settle into new schools and make new friends and sometimes catch up to the new curriculum in their new school.

Colette

How can policies help new immigrant kids and the schools and communities they move into?

Shelly

RAND just did a study on education of undocumented and asylum-seeking kids. So, people who are undocumented came to the United States without the proper legal papers, and people who are seeking asylum are looking to live in the United States because they want to leave violence from their own country. And what we found is that federal law states that all children, regardless of immigration status, who are in the United States, have a right to a public education. And there are ways that schools could be better supported. First, kids arrive throughout the year, but federal funding is only available once a year. So federal funding could be available on a more flexible basis. Second, in a survey, 70 percent of teachers say that they have English-language learners in their classrooms, but many of them never had training on how to help these kids learn English. So we recommended additional training for teachers for working with English-language learning students.

Colette

How does immigration affect culture?

Shelly

The vast majority of people in the United States had ancestors who came from another place. Unless they're Native American, people's ancestors came from Europe, from Africa, from other parts of the Americas, from Asia, from all over the world. And American culture is a blend of the heritage and culture and experience and history of all of these different types of people. So the expression that's often used is "melting pot," where cultures come together and build on each other. I like to walk down the street and see a lot of different restaurants. I like to listen to many different types of music, and I like to read books about different parts of the world.

Colette

What are some things that people don't understand about immigration policy?

Shelly

Some people think that the debates about immigration policy are about whether or not to have immigration at all. But most Americans agree that immigration is really important. But the issues for debate are: How many people should be allowed to come to the United States every year? How can the government better manage the process of that? And also, what should happen with people who are already in the United States but who don't have proper paperwork? So, for example, there's a proposed law called the Dream Act that would allow kids who came to the United States without the proper paperwork to continue staying as adults.

Colette

What are some of the benefits of immigration?

Shelly

There are a lot of benefits of immigration. When immigrants come to the United States, they bring their knowledge, their skills, their culture, and a lot of their efforts. I personally feel that my life is richer from knowing people from around the world.

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Video 3 Coping with Climate Change: What We Can Do to Fight It

Kyra

Hi, I'm Kyra. I'm in sixth grade. And I really am interested in climate change because I think it has a big impact on the world.

Rob

Hi, Kyra. Good to meet you. I'm Rob Lempert. I'm a principal researcher at RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. And my research at RAND focuses on climate change, so I look forward to talking with you.

Kyra

What is climate change, exactly?

Rob

Good question. The Earth has a blanket of gases around it that keep it at a comfortable temperature for human life. If we didn't have these greenhouse gases, the Earth would be a big ball of ice. But over the last 70 years, human activities like driving our cars, and generating electricity, growing our food, has emitted gases that have made that blanket thicker, and the Earth has warmed up. It doesn't happen smoothly, so there's still times when the Earth is— things are cold, and it is cold outside. But overall, the Earth now is significantly and noticeably hotter than it was when your grandparents were your age.

Kyra

What is one of the biggest challenges the world is facing due to climate change?

Rob

Climate change has some really significant direct and indirect effects. So, direct effects include hotter days and more destructive storms and droughts. I think where you live in Massachusetts, you've probably seen some really severe storms, much stronger than they have been in the past. Where I live in California, we've had wildfires and droughts. And then climate change also has these indirect effects where things connect to each other. So for instance, here in the western U.S., the fact that it's warmer has made it easier for beetles that eat trees to increase and thrive. So when there are fires, there are more dead trees, and that makes the fires even bigger. And then climate change can make it harder for farmers to grow their crops, which can make food more expensive. It can cause farmers having to leave where they live and go elsewhere. And it can also damage the natural world. So it makes species go extinct and destroys the nature around us.

Kyra

Is there a way that we can stop this from happening?

Rob

There are many things that we can do. We need to change the way that we get around, that we grow our food, that we manufacture goods and generate our electricity. And there's some really promising trends in that direction. So over the last 10 years or so, renewable energy—wind and solar—has gotten less expensive. People have started to drive electric cars. Farmers have started to grow food in ways that emit fewer greenhouse gases. And people have begun to change their behavior in ways that help deal with climate change. So say, for instance, people eat less meat or get around more by riding their bikes. So there's been a lot of good trends, but it hasn't been enough. We need to accelerate and do more of those things. And not only here in our country, but around the world.

Kyra

What are governments doing to stop or reduce climate change?

Rob

Governments are doing, and can do, many things. They can do research in new technologies. So many of the renewable energy technologies are based on technology that's come out of government research, so there's a lot more to do there. They can provide incentives or regulations that encourage people to produce electricity in new ways, to buy electric cars. They can build infrastructure—for instance, putting electric chargers around. And that's at the federal level. At the local level, your city government or your state government can build bike lanes. They can have building codes which encourage energy-efficient housing. And then on the other side of the ledger, we've already emitted enough greenhouse gases so that the climate has already changed. And even if we stop right now, it'll still continue changing for some years. And so it's important for the government to help people become more resilient to climate change. So help towns deal with floods, say, by making houses more resilient to flooding or having people relocate out of the way of floodplains. And here in California, where there's fires, help people make their house more resistant to fire and do clearing of forests so that the forests won't burn as intensely.

Kyra

What can I, as a sixth grader, do to help stop climate change?

Rob

There's lots you can do. Join an eco group. You, at your school, could calculate the carbon footprint of your school or your household. You can get around more without driving your car— having your parents drive you around. You can consume less. And then you can get active and, you know, make it known politically that this is an important issue to you. And then one important thing is really just to talk about it with your family, with your friends, other people you know. Because the more people talk about it, the more people become aware of the problem and some of the solutions, and the more we will do about it.

Kyra

Should richer governments do more about climate change than poorer governments?

Rob

Yes, is the short answer. I mean, one of the things about climate change is that the people in the countries that have caused the most of it are often not those who suffer the most from climate change. So rich countries tend to pollute more. And it's often the poor countries that tend to suffer more. So, yeah, so richer countries do have a duty to help. First, to reduce their emissions first and fastest, but then also to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change.

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Video 4 Let Me Sleep! Why Teens Need More and How Policy Could Help

Alana

Hi, my name is Alana. Today I'm going to be interviewing Dr. Troxel on sleep. I chose sleep because in COVID, I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and I felt like I would wake up in the middle of the night and I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. And I'd just keep waking up, and I didn't get enough sleep, and I always felt very tired in the days.

Wendy

Hi, Alana. My name is Dr.

Wendy

Troxel. I'm a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, where I study sleep.

Alana

So the first question I have for you is, about how much sleep do people need?

Wendy

I get asked this question all the time. How much sleep do we need? Well, the first thing is we all need sleep, no matter what your age. But our specific sleep duration needs change across the lifespan. Adults need somewhere around seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Teenagers need around eight to ten hours of sleep per night. And younger children and babies need even more. In fact, during the first few months of life, babies spend more than half of their lives asleep. Now, that's a testament to just how important sleep is for our health and our development.

Alana

Why don't teenagers get enough sleep?

Wendy

There are many factors preventing teens from getting the sleep they need, but one big factor is actually a matter of public policy. Most schools in the U.S. start around 8:00 a.m. or earlier, despite the fact that teenagers are biologically programmed to stay awake later and sleep in later. These early school start times have a direct effect on how much, or really how little, sleep teens are getting. When they reach their teen years, kids experience a change in the release of a hormone called melatonin, which is the hormone that tells our bodies when it's time to get sleepy. Teens' bodies wait to start pumping out melatonin until around 11:00 p.m., which is about two hours later than what we see in adults or younger children. And teens' bodies keep pumping out high levels of melatonin well into the morning hours. So, like I said, teenagers' bodies are biologically programmed to stay awake later and sleep in later. So here's the problem: Your body is telling you to stay awake later and sleep in later. And yet you need to get to school on time five days a week. That's why this is a policy issue. The policy of early school start times is in direct conflict with your biology.

Alana

What kind of policies can help kids and teenagers get the sleep that they need?

Wendy

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and many other major medical organizations all recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The state of California has even passed a law that will require healthy school start times, and many other school districts across the country have similarly adopted healthy school start time policies based on the solid scientific evidence. This is an example of public policy at work and science informing policy.

Alana

What are good ways to deal with waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep?

Wendy

The best thing you can do if you're lying awake in bed and not sleeping is actually to get out of bed and do something that takes your mind off the fact that you're not sleeping. Maybe go to a chair in your room and start reading a book, or even sitting up in bed, and starting to read a book or doing something else that's relaxing but distracting. The problem is, if you lie there in bed, awake, and maybe your mind starts running, that can lead to frustration and anxiety, which can keep you up even more at night. So what you want to do is break that habit of being awake in bed and try not to stress out about it too much. That's why, if I wake up in the middle of the night, what I do is I'll start reading a book. And what I find is—and what my clients find, and this is a evidence-backed strategy—is that as you engage in that other activity, you get sort of distracted, and your mind moves away from the fact that you're not sleeping, and you actually then get sleepy again. At that point, you close the book, and you get back into bed or you lie back down, and you try to sleep again. Again, you're breaking the habit of being awake in bed. Now, the thing you shouldn't do if you wake up in the middle of the night is look at your phone or use any other technology. That light that is emitted from our electronic devices can directly suppress the hormone melatonin and is very alerting, so it can keep you up even more. So, no checking your emails or social media at that point, just do something that's relaxing but distracting, and you might find that you're able to fall back to sleep.

Wendy

Thank you, Alana, so much for allowing me the time to answer these wonderful questions about sleep. I hope this is informative for you and your friends.

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Table of Contents

  • Lesson One

    What Is Public Policy?

  • Lesson Two

    Learning About Public Policy Topics from Credible Sources

  • Lesson Three

    Finding Credible Information About Public Policy Topics

  • Lesson Four

    Creating Information Products

  • Lesson Five

    Sharing Information Products Responsibly

  • Appendix A

    Printable Materials for Students

  • Appendix B

    Applicable Learning Standards

  • Appendix C

    Suggested Supports for Special Populations

This research was sponsored by the Zwick Impact Fund.

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