At public panel discussion hosted by UH Hilo’s poli-sci department, educators discuss status of civic education on Hawai‘i Island

The panel discussion was one of several events that UH Hilo’s political science department is hosting this year to promote civic engagement and an informed citizenry on the island.


By Susan Enright.

At the League of Women Voters of Hawaiʻi County’s general meeting held on the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo campus on Jan. 27, the LWV, along with UH Hilo’s Department of Political Science, hosted a panel discussion on “The Status of Civic Education on Hawaiʻi Island.”

Panelists included Sarah Marusek, a professor of political science at UH Hilo; Claudia Wilcox-Boucher, chair of the social sciences department at Hawaiʻi Community College; and Sean Wagner, social studies teacher at Waiākea High School. Nina Buchanan, UH Hilo professor emerita of education, served as moderator.

Panel of four people. Sarah Marusek is speaking into a mic. Signs on front of panel table: League of Women Voters, and UH Hilo Political Science.
Panel, from left, Claudia Wilcox-Boucher, Sarah Marusek, and Sean Wagner. Nina Buchanan, far right, served as moderator. (Photo: Leoshina Kariha/UH Hilo)

Panelists shared an overview of approaches to civic education and how it aligns with the student’s academic level. They also discussed initiatives and programs at their school designed to actively engage students in civic participation and foster a deeper understanding of democratic principles. Other topics included how schools collaborate with local communities, organizations or government bodies to enhance civic education and encourage students to be active, informed citizens.

The importance of civic education

Su-Mi Lee pictured
Su-Mi Lee

Su-Mi Lee, associate professor and chair of the political science department who organized the event, says the importance of a panel discussion on these topics is because “an informed citizenry is the lifeline to democracy. Without it, democracy cannot survive.”

“When people say ‘informed citizenry,’ information is only one component of the formula,” Lee says. “With the internet, these days, anyone can have access to abundant information. Having information does not make you an informed citizen. You should be able to put information together into a body of knowledge.”

She says she tells students that information is a piece of a puzzle and there are plenty of pieces out there. “Civic education should help students develop critical thinking that would help them put these pieces together to make sense of a phenomenon they are facing. Only when they can do that, they are able to apply it to a real-world situation.”

Lee also says that civic education must start early.

“There is a proverb that it takes a village to raise a child,” she says. “That is not a far-fetched expression. All levels of education need to check in with each other to develop their curriculum—not to be uniform but streamlined—and work with the community to provide a field of practice and application of their curriculum.”

Lee points out that the importance of civic education has been growing. Under Governor Ige, the Hawai’i Supreme Court established the Commission to Promote and Advance Civic Education (PACE) in 2021 to promote civic education and engagement.

UH Hilo’s Department of Political Science has been organizing annual Constitution Day events on campus. In 2022, the PACE Commission offered bookmarks that contain QR codes of websites important to the U.S. and Hawaiʻi state constitutions, as well as Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes 5-7.5 “Aloha Spirit,” as giveaways at that year’s Constitutional Day event.

Professor Marusek will be part of the Law and Justice Academy that the PACE Commission is organizing at UH Hilo later this year. The poli-sci department is partnering with Hualani Loo, associate director of UH Hilo’s Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, and Troy Andrade at UH Mānoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law, to bring Richardson’s Law and Justice Academy to Hawaiʻi Island for high school students interested in law schools. Other partners include the Hawaiʻi County Bar Association.

“We will continue this beneficial relationship with the PACE Commission to help better our UH Hilo students’ civic education,” says Lee. “And, of course, our collaborative relations with other educational institutions and community organizations will help us achieve that goal.”

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.