Efforts are taking shape across the country to get more scholars into politics at the local level. However, largely absent from this process is the approach that many other academic disciplines use effectively but which is lacking in the pure sciences: classes that offer students participation in real-world local politics for academic credit as part of their graduate programs .
Experiential learning opportunities offered as part of graduate-level coursework are generally referred to as capstone programmes. It is structured along the lines of a consulting model, where students present to project clients the final products of their work, which effectively serve as their thesis. The key to these types of arrangements is for students to receive academic credit from their institutions in exchange for applying their technical and critical thinking skills to real-world challenges.
In the pure sciences, incorporating these graduation projects can be separate from, but in addition to, the traditional research-based thesis that students attend to complete their advanced degrees. Such preparation would give these graduate students the ability to gain first-hand experience in politics by working on projects for local government clients while still being involved in scholarly research. This type of out-of-lab experience will help develop an understanding of the governmental context and practitioner experience that is not normally available in such academia.
An academic institution can build this type of program and create its own graduation projects without having to guess at the research needs of public agencies in the process. For example, one of us, Terry Matthews, runs Town + gown: NYC, a city-wide research program located in the New York City Department of Design and Construction, and is the director of the city’s major capital construction project. T+G works with experiential learning programs and professors and students at academic institutions to develop projects with city agency members of the community of practice – seeing such collaboration through to project completion. One example of student-led research is from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs’ coronation program for the New York City Housing Authority. Another from New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering Center for Urban Science and T+G’s Urban Resource Recovery Working Group’s Progress Capstone Program. The practical knowledge it creates not only provides invaluable support to the department itself, but also makes it a research resource for all city agencies.
Our other lead, Nancy Holt, is Science for New York, which also strives to bring policy makers and scientists together through project-based interaction. Recent and ongoing collaborations between Sci4NY and T+G are supporting the public awareness efforts on food waste for the nonprofit New York Department of Sanitation, as well as developing ways scientists can work closely with the city to address challenges in local communities.
The advantages of this experiential learning program for graduate students who wish to pursue a career in politics are significant. It allows them to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle they need to successfully apply for jobs and other career pursuits: experience. Completed projects count as employment on resumes, and project clients can serve as professional references for students. As graduate programs in pure sciences are currently regulated, obtaining such experience is a challenge, to say the least.
In addition, experiential learning along these lines gives graduate students time to pursue their interest in policy issues. Most research advisors expect graduate students to remain in the lab for many hours beyond the standard work week, which particularly hampers students’ ability to interact with policy makers. Assigning a formal class to experiential learning gives these students the opportunity to work on these projects as part of their academic coursework.
These programs also provide students with knowledge of public policy – a skill that is not easily acquired through the typical policy seminar or certificate courses that career development offices have begun to offer to students in the pure sciences. This type of knowledge is especially important in today’s political climate, regardless of whether or not a graduate student is pursuing a career in politics.
Graduate programs must evolve
Colleges and universities that establish these programs must keep several points in mind: Local government is a particular challenge to effectively understand as an outsider. One of the main reasons is that there is less information about local government than at the federal level, and pathways for direct government interaction are generally limited. Thus, hiring coaches who are seasoned in politics with well-established government relationships and professional experience to teach policy skills to graduate students of science can enrich the process significantly.
It is also necessary to provide academic credit for these programs. Today, awarding academic credit for work that is not part of a student’s direct research path is not standard practice in advanced degree awarding programs in the pure sciences. However, from the municipality’s perspective, working with graduate classes is a generally accepted method of collaboration. From the perspective of the government, it is not seen as a purchase of services, but rather an exchange in kind. In other words, students present their academic skills, and in turn the government provides factual research questions and associated data, along with practitioner experience that supports the students’ professional development.
Thus, academic credit is fundamental to this type of exchange of transactions from a local government perspective: such an arrangement allows students to participate in projects in easily provable ways that demonstrate compliance with various labor laws. Through the final lens, creating this option will enhance the student’s overall experience as well as overcome the major logistical barrier that arises when trying to work with local government.
For now, higher education institutions seem pretty much going on – doing what they know best by getting more academics out. Professors and university administrators may view advancing non-academic career paths as exceeding their goals. But this will miss the point, as the scientific establishment cannot succeed without introducing new software opportunities that help in recruiting the best students. In Darwinian science, those institutions that do not develop will become extinct.
Additionally, the fact is that experiential learning benefits not only graduate students but also the institutions that offer these programs. The main selling features that many graduate programs use to attract applicants are postgraduate employment rates and other professional development opportunities. Especially in these times, when many scholars no longer end up in traditional academic career paths, students are beginning to consider postgraduate employment metrics when they choose graduate school. International students may be particularly attracted to institutions that offer such programs, because participation in project-based work through an embedded academic course generally does not require citizenship.
Furthermore, students who are able to engage effectively with policy makers and the public will not only be better advocates for an enhanced role for science in society – along with scientific funding – but also more likely to be more generous donors to their university. And we should not forget in this equation the public that science is supposed to benefit and politics are supposed to serve. Dramatically expanding opportunities for scientists and policy makers to work together through experiential learning at the local level in graduate programs would help create healthier and more resilient societies for all of us.