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A virtual internship to prepare high school students for civic and political action


We explored the impact of participating in a Virtual Internship (VI) computer-supported collaborative learning simulation, on high school students’ (n = 43) development of knowledge and skills for critiquing the political media with which they engage. Second, we evaluated the effect of this intervention on students’ self-efficacy for using specific media strategies to take political action. Finally, we explored the epistemic (knowledge-seeking) and non-epistemic aims that students set for themselves while participating within our VI, which was designed specifically to address students’ epistemic cognition. Analyses of both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed that students: (1) evinced gains in knowledge about what “fracking” is and also knowledge about why it is a controversial topic; (2) evinced gains in self-efficacy for civic engagement—a key indicator to students’ likelihood for acting; and (3) were able to understand the politicized nature of a social media post, and therefore reported wanting to pursue knowledge-seeking goals to understand both sides of the argument and the trustworthiness of the information sources. We discuss these results vis-à-vis the literature on epistemic games, which can help students develop the knowledge, skills, identity, and values of a profession.

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This work was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation’s New Civics Initiative (#201600081), which was awarded to Jeremy D. Stoddard (PI). All opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Spencer Foundation.

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Correspondence to Jason A. Chen.

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Pre-Intervention Survey and Post-Intervention Survey

Self-Efficacy for Civic Engagement:

Prompt: If you had to do the following tasks RIGHT NOW, how confident are you that you could do it? Scale of 1 = Not at all Confident to 6 = Completely Confident.

  • Participate in an INFORMED discussion of political issues

  • Construct good arguments about political issues

  • Begin a discussion regarding a controversial political issue with someone who disagrees with me.

  • Identify hidden political messages in advertising

  • Identify hidden political messages in journalism

  • Persuade someone who disagrees with me to REACH CONCENSUS on a controversial issue

  • Do something to get local officials to address a problem

  • Use social media to effectively communicate about controversial political issues.

  • Evaluate the quality of different internet sources of political information

  • Take action to address a local policy or social issue

Knowledge of Fracking (2 open-ended items):

Prompt 1: What is the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking"? Please describe with as much detail as possible.

Scoring Guide:

1 = Fails to convey any specific understanding of the technologies used (e.g., horizontal drilling, high-pressure water, chemicals), to identify the specific product (natural gas) or the nature of the process (fracturing rocks to release the shale gas inside). Also makes inaccurate assertions.

2 = Conveys understanding that the purpose of fracking is to generate natural gas. Also gives vague/simplistic but broadly accurate descriptions of the basic process.

3 = Conveys a broad understanding of most of the products, processes, and technologies involved in fracking.

4 = Conveys a systematic understanding of the various products, processes, and technologies involved in fracking, and how they play out sequentially.

Prompt 2: Why is the use of the fracking process considered a controversial public policy issue in the US? Please be as specific as possible in your answer. Why do people disagree about whether or not we should use the fracking process?

Scoring Guide:

1 = Does not convey accurate knowledge of either the benefits or costs associated with fracking; does not indicate an understanding of how these benefits and costs conflict with each other (environmental protection vs. economic growth); does not give general or specific examples of the benefits/costs associated with fracking; and makes vague or incorrect assertions that indicate confusion about specifics.

2 = Identifies the benefits of fracking, but not the costs, or vice-versa; and gives general (fracking raises environmental concerns) rather than specific (fracking leads to water pollution) but accurate examples of benefits and/or costs. OR gives a specific example of benefits but not costs, or vice-versa.

3 = Identifies both benefits and costs of fracking; and gives general examples of benefits and/or costs.

4 = Identifies both benefits and costs of fracking; gives specific examples of both costs and benefits.

Epistemic Cognition (Epistemic Aims – two items):

Analyze the source provided below and then answer the following questions.


Ranking Prompt: If you came across this memo while you were on social media (e.g., Facebook), what would you be most likely to do next? Please drag and drop the items listed below to rank them from top (MOST likely to do) to bottom (LEAST likely to do).

Forced Choice Ranking Options:

  • Look for more information about the polling agency

  • Learn more about the topic of fracking

  • Find out more information about the recipient of the memo

  • Do nothing with it and move on to something else

  • Re-Post the memo on social media

  • Look for multiple polling results concerning this topic

Open-ended Prompt: For the top TWO (2) things that you listed in the previous question, please explain WHY you might be inclined to do those things.

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Chen, J.A., Stoddard, J.D. A virtual internship to prepare high school students for civic and political action. Education Tech Research Dev 68, 3449–3470 (2020).

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  • Epistemic cognition
  • Self-efficacy
  • Epistemic games
  • Democratic education
  • Civic engagement