The New Jersey State Capitol sits in the heart of Trenton, within sight of the Delaware River. From the historic interior rotunda space where stained-glass windows surround portraits of the state’s early governors, to the gold-leaf covered dome, which was restored in the late 1990s with funds collected by the “Dimes for the Dome” campaign conducted by New Jersey schoolchildren, the building stands as testimony to two centuries of state law-making and state history.

That’s why a field trip to the capitol building offers a promising approach for teachers and administrators to foster students’ inclination to be active citizens.

It’s more important than ever to prepare young people to be informed and engaged citizens. Recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported there has been no significant improvement in levels of civic knowledge in the past few years. Voter turnout rates among 18-to 24-year-olds have been disappointing, dipping to 41 percent in 2012.

The New Jersey State House Tour Office and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University are collaborating to offer students an educational experience that will both enhance their understanding of the legislative process and increase the likelihood of their future civic participation.

The New Jersey State House Tour Office operates under the authority of the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), the nonpartisan agency dedicated to supporting the New Jersey Legislature. The Tour Office’s mission is to share with citizens the work of the Legislature and to promote engagement in the lawmaking process. This goal is achieved primarily by leading groups through the building on free tours. The tour theme emphasizes that a representative democracy works best with citizen participation. School tours stress that students – even as children – can actively influence the legislative process if they choose to engage in the opportunities provided to them. The backdrop for this meaningful message is the historic State House.

First built in 1792, the State House is one of the oldest operating capitols in the country. Students feel connected to their state’s history and government as they stand beneath the gold dome and sit in the beautifully restored legislative chambers where lawmakers meet. While walking through the same hallways as historic and current leaders, students in grades kindergarten through high school witness government in action.

Currently, some school groups enhance their visit with existing programming and educational materials. During the Make-A-Law! program, students in grades 3 through 12 participate in a mock legislative session and assume the role of lawmakers. This type of experiential learning offers an effective approach to teaching the process of bill passage and the skills of public speaking, negotiation and compromise. The educational value of the Make-A-Law! program is supported by an emerging set of evidence-based best practices in civic education. As reported in the Civic Mission of Schools’ Guardians of Democracy, such instructional techniques as group discussion and debate, outside-the-classroom activities and simulation of democratic processes, offer students the opportunity to build the skills and confidence needed to be engaged citizens. In addition to the simulation, teachers throughout the state – regardless of whether a visit is made – can access supplemental publications through the tour office or download them from the legislative website.

To better serve teachers, all programming and materials designed in the tour office connect to applicable New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Tour content has significant overlap with fourth-grade curriculum and includes information about state symbols, the purpose of laws, the levels and branches of government, the legislative process, and the citizen’s role in a representative democracy.

Teachers of all grades, however, will discover that the tour office programming explores ideas and information that reinforces classroom lessons. Middle-school and high-school programming builds on the fourth-grade content and includes other appropriate social studies standards, such as the checks and balances of government, New Jersey’s constitutional history, the role of legislative districts in elections, and simulated legislative proceedings.

The tour office maintains a high quality of programming by providing ongoing education and training for more than two dozen well-qualified volunteers. Many of the volunteers are retired and bring skills that were cultivated through years of service in teaching, business and corporate careers. OLS staff members also volunteer and contribute a unique and valuable insider’s view. Staff and volunteers participate in a rigorous training program and are knowledgeable about curriculum standards and effective teaching strategies. The State House tour guides and program facilitators are able to provide meaningful civic education experiences that meet the learning needs of each individual school group.

Collaboration with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University offers an opportunity to enhance the tour office’s shared civic education goals. Founded in 1956 with a bequest by Florence Peshine Eagleton, a suffragist and founder of New Jersey’s League of Women Voters, the mission of the Eagleton Institute is to link the study of politics with the practice of politics. The institute pursues this mission by focusing on how the political system works, how it changes, and how it might work better. Certainly one route for improving the quality of politics is civic education.

State House Express is a small grants program funded by the New Jersey Legislature and administered by the Eagleton Institute of Politics that provides awards to eligible middle-school and high-school teachers to offset the cost of field trips to the State House. Working in partnership with the tour office, the Eagleton Institute is broadening the Express program to include preparatory and follow-up activities through its RU Ready program. Working in area high schools for the past seven years, RU Ready has offered teachers a supplement to their existing curriculum with an aim to encourage and prepare students to be politically engaged. The efforts of the Eagleton Institute and the Tour Office promise to expand the reach of the State House Express program and enhance the educational experience of teachers and students participating in the program.

During the 2014-2015 academic year, the Tour Office and the Eagleton Institute will be working with a small number of schools to pilot a set of activities for teachers and students participating in State House Express. The activities will be rooted in both research and the recommendations of teachers and administrators themselves. Proposed activities this year include reflection opportunities prior to students’ visits to the State House and afterward; lessons and activities centered around primary documents relevant to the Make-A-Law! program simulation, such as transcripts or video of floor speeches; and the creation of an electronic platform (i.e., a wiki on the Youth Political Participation Program website) that would allow State House Express teachers and students to connect and work collaboratively subsequent to their visit. The hope is that by enhancing the State House tour with political learning activities and materials, there will be an increased likelihood that the positive effects of the visit will be long-lasting and result in students’ engaged citizenship.

The combined efforts of the New Jersey State House Tour Office and the Eagleton Institute of Politics strive to meet the needs of New Jersey teachers and school administrators by enriching, supporting, and expanding the civic education lessons and opportunities of the classroom. Scholarship consistently demonstrates that civic education positively affects a young person’s level of political knowledge and that heightened political knowledge improves the likelihood of active citizenship. The benefits of a quality civic education are broad and certainly extend beyond the social studies department. As Guardians of Democracy concludes, non-civic benefits to a quality civic education include the acquisition of 21st century skills and, for schools, an improvement in school climate and a decrease in dropout rates. A field trip to the New Jersey State House in conjunction with the resources shared by the Tour Office and the Eagleton Institute offers an excellent method to expose students to meaningful civic experiences designed to provide information, skills, and dispositions needed to be active citizens.

Sarah M. Schmidt is a State House Tour program educator.Elizabeth C. Matto, Ph.D. is an assistant research professor and director of the Youth Political Participation program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.