STS.080 | Spring 2016 | Undergraduate

Youth Political Participation

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course STS.080 Youth Political Participation as it was taught by Professor Jennifer Light in Spring 2016.

This course placed contemporary youth activities in perspective by surveying young Americans’ political participation over the past 200 years. Students investigated trends in youth political activism during specific periods of history, as well as what difference youth media production and technology made in determining the course of events.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

  • Enhance one’s ability to identify what is truly new about the role of “new media” and other contemporary technologies in youth politcal participation
  • Understand lessons from history for contemporary activists based on patterns of past failures and successes

Instructor Insights

Below, Jennifer Light describes various aspects of how she taught STS.080 Youth Political Participation.

Writing Exam Questions Collaboratively with Students

"This class reflects the newly developing consensus that we need to revise our scholarly understandings of the meanings of political participation, past and present."
— Jennifer Light

I have asked students to write the exams in all of my undergraduate courses for my entire academic career (almost 20 years). It is especially appropriate given the subject of this class, but I have found that, more generally, it encourages students to take a more active role in their own education, consider how course content is related to their own interests, and figure out exactly what they have learned in the class. 

In STS.080 Youth Political Participation, the students generated five essay questions and I posed two of the questions on one of our tests. Toward the end of the semester students proposed that we drop the second in-class test and instead prepare presentations using the historical materials in the class as fodder for a campaign on an issue they cared about. I considered this a very successful effort at youth participation within the confines of the course!

Asking Students to Email Discussion Questions in Advance

I asked students to email me discussion questions prior to each class session, in the spirit of using student interest to guide course discussions, and also to make sure everyone was keeping up with the heavy reading load. It was also an opportunity for students to say, “I am confused, please explain” more privately than in the context of a class discussion. Students’ questions often related historical readings to current events, which was a good way to get into the material in class.

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Reflecting on Student-Led Presentations

Student-led presentations are important training tools given the importance of oral communication skills in many workplaces today. In addition, since the class was not a research-oriented course, the presentations small groups provided for the class each session on the assigned topic for the week were an opportunity for students to practice their information-seeking and information integration skills. I pointed them to initial sources, and then set them loose on the subject.

Students’ presentations sparked many conversations in class about how to define what “counts” as political participation. Scholars have traditionally studied voting as the main form of political participation, which necessarily means overlooking the kinds of political activities in which people too young to vote have engaged. This class reflects the newly developing consensus that we need to revise our scholarly understandings of the meanings of political participation, past and present.

In this context, one theme that kept cropping up in class was the link between cultural and political expression. In the 1920s, the word “flapper” referred to a hair and fashion choice, but it had political connotations as well. Similarly, the mostly non-white Americans who sported Zoot suits in the 1940s were targets for violence, not merely because of their fashion choices or musical tastes, but because of the political associations with these cultural choices. So students presenting on rap music considered the extent to which cultural expression, in the form of rap music, “counted” as political participation. Many enjoyed listening to rap music before, and came away understanding it as the latest in a long line of young peoples’ cultural artifacts with political meaning.

Augmenting the Curriculum with a Visit to the MIT Museum

Visiting the MIT Museum allowed students to learn about the history of political participation among MIT students, and to look at primary sources.

Curator Deborah Douglas pulled out a variety of ephemera – posters and flyers – mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. We had the students brainstorm what they thought these materials were about. We supplemented those with more posters, photographs from the period of campus and off-campus protests, and other campus materials, like the year book, student newspaper, and other university publications.

It was interesting for the students to learn about the kinds of political materials produced by earlier generations of MIT students – such as the popularity of silk-screening in the campus fraternities – and to rethink their initial assumptions about poster content in dialogue with other materials. We talked about how history gets written, and how writing history depends on who saves what. We speculated about how future historians will write the history of the current generation, in light of the fact that so much is happening online, rather than on paper.

Student Insights

Below, Valerie Peng, a student studying mechanical engineering, shares insights about her learning experiences in STS.080 Youth Political Participation.

Writing Exam Questions Collaboratively with the Instructor and other Students

Collaborating with other students and with Professor Light to decide not only what questions would be asked on one of our tests but also what format the assessment would take made my learning expereince more enjoyable. In developing the questions, it felt like we had free reign to apply our understanding of the history of youth political participation to any modern-day cause or movement that we wanted. Even modern history can seem detached from students’ lives when we are learning it, but in this way, Professor Light made what we had just learned applicable to something we cared about. Not only that, but it made it easier to remember and to appreciate the history as well!

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Teaching Strategies that Made the Class Engaging

Professor Light made class sessions highly interactive. At the start of each class, she wrote a series of questions on the board to get our minds thinking. This strategy also made it easier for me to organize all of our readings according to topic and political participation technique.

I thought Professor Light’s emphasis on not necessarily reading every word of a 60-page text made it easier for me to engage with the material. Overall, I felt I had a good handle on the readings, but didn’t feel the pressure of having to know all the ins and outs of every passage. It made the high volume of reading and wide breadth of topics manageable, and helped me understand the bigger picture shaping the movements at the center of our readings.

"The in-class student presentations were great. They were casual enough to not be stressful for presenters, and involved very interesting topics that were quite relevant to, but also very different from the readings."
— Valerie Peng

Additionally, Professor Light showed a video of a movie from the “Flapper” era, along with a modern series on racial inequalities across school districts. These multimedia presentations helped me internalize the course material. In general, she made a three-hour afternoon lecture very bearable and actually fun, because she combined different mediums (book chapters, pictures, movies) and let class discussions flow naturally.

Also, the in-class student presentations were great. They were casual enough to not be stressful for presenters, and involved very interesting topics that were quite relevant to, but also very different from, the readings. Finally, students had the freedom to structure their presentations however they wanted to, which made the experience more interesting for everyone.

Visiting the MIT Museum

Our field trip to the MIT museum illuminated a resource that all MIT students have right down the street. “Youth political participation” can seem far-removed from the present MIT student’s life, and political activism can seem like a phenomenon of other times or other places. By seeing real photos of MIT students from the 1960s holding up signs and gathered in front of our very own student center, we learned about demonstrations and movements that were literally close to home. Seeing crisp posters, some with scrawled words of response, others printed on old type-written lab paper, also made what we learned feel more tangible and memorable.

Curriculum Information



Requirements Satisfied


Spring 2016 was the first offering of the course.


Grade Breakdown

The students’ grades were based on the following activities:

  • 25% Test
  • 40% Alternative Assignment
  • 25% Participation, Including In-class Presentations
  • 10% Weekly Discussion Qusetions

Instructor Insights on Assessment

Read about Professor Light’s insights about writing exam questions collaboratively with students.

Student Information


Fewer than 10 students 

Breakdown by Year

Mostly seniors

Breakdown by Major

Mostly science and engineering majors

Typical Student Background

Many of the students had specific political interests, such as race relations on campus; civil rights for gay/lesbian/transgender students; environmental protection and access to health care. Their interests guided the discussions.

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

  • Met 1 time per week for 3 hours per session; 12 sessions total.
  • Class sessions included small-group student presentations.
  • One session included a visit to the MIT Museum to spark discussion about the history of political participation of MIT students, with reference to technology, media, and political hacks.

Out of Class

  • Readings
  • Preparation for small-group presentations
  • Emailing of discussion questions to instructor prior to each class session
  • Preparation for the test

Course Info

Learning Resource Types
Presentation Assignments
Activity Assignments
Instructor Insights