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In January, 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon was lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening up thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs to women. While many women have already served in combat roles and continue to do so, lifting the ban reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations and could provide women making careers in the military with equal access to the highest levels of military command. The challenge for the various branches of the Armed Services is to develop a plan that carefully analyzes all the issues and implements the policy in a fair and equitable way.
The decision to allow women to serve in combat is groundbreaking and presents a unique opportunity for teachers to cover in their classes. Important concepts such as equal protection, discrimination and the role of public opinion are at play. These concepts and much more are covered in a unique project-based lesson entitled Fighting Chance, one of six units in the Project Based Government package. Project-based learning is an active learning instructional methodology that engages students in a rigorous process of inquiry on complex, authentic issues. Along the way, students build 21st-century sills such as collaboration, presentation, and critical thinking/problem solving.
The issue in Fighting Chance is especially timely as the Pentagon weighs the questions of whether women will serve in elite units. The situation involves a woman in the military who was denied admission into the Army’s Special Forces Green Berets unit. She claims the denial violated her right to equal protection under the law under the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Students take the role of freshmen attorneys who must recommend whether their law firm should take the case which is going to the Supreme Court. Students analyze relevant Army regulations, read amicus briefs supporting the each side’s case, and review precedent cases that provide perspectives on both sides. Just as students are preparing a presentation on their recommendations to the senior partners, the law firm receives a letter from an important client who opposes the firm’s involvement in the case and asks that they seriously consider whether they should take the case. Students have to decide whether this letter will influence their recommendations.
As students tackle the challenge to balance constitutional issues with the need for an effective military, they also learn about the federal court system including the powers and procedures of the Supreme Court. Concepts such as due process, equal protection, reasonable and unreasonable discrimination, judicial review, and the role of public opinion on the courts are explored.
As in all project-based learning units, Fighting Chance is a complete unit of instruction centered on a scenario that presents students with an engaging, realistic problem with more than one possible reasonable solution. Students begin with a driving question, in this case, “How can they explain to the law firm’s senior partner whether the prospective client can win the case?” Students work collaboratively to draw up lists of what they know and what they need know to answer the driving question and revise the question as needed. The unit provides all the background and research materials (as well as graphic organizers) for students to collect and organize their information and provides teachers with assessment tools and rubrics to adequately evaluate student performance. In addition to 21st-century learning skills, Fighting Chance covers the National Standards for Civics and Government and NCSS standards.