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Efforts are taking shape across the nation to involve more scientists in policy at the local level. Largely absent from that process, however, is an approach that many other academic disciplines use effectively but is lacking in the pure sciences: classes that offer students real-world local policy engagement for academic credit as part of their graduate programs.

Experiential learning opportunities provided as part of graduate-level coursework are generally referred to as capstone programs. They are structured along the lines of the consultancy model, with students presenting to the project’s clients their final work products, which effectively serve as their thesis. Key to such types of arrangements is that students 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 those capstone projects could be separate from but in addition to the traditional research-based dissertation students present to complete their advanced degrees. Such a setup would afford those graduate students the ability to obtain firsthand policy experience by working on projects for local government clients while also remaining engaged in scientific research. This kind of beyond-the-lab experience would help cultivate an understanding of government context and practitioner expertise that is typically not available in such academic settings.

An academic institution can build this type of program and create its own capstone projects without having to guess at the research needs of public agencies in the process. For example, one of us, Terri Matthews, directs Town+Gown: NYC, a citywide research program based at the New York City Department of Design and Construction, the city’s primary capital construction project manager. T+G works with experiential learning programs, professors and students at academic institutions to develop projects with city agency members of its practitioner community—seeing such collaborations through to project completion. One example of student-led research is from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs capstone program for the New York City Housing Authority. Another is from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering Center for Urban Science and Progress capstone program for T+G’s Urban Resource Recovery Working Group. The actionable knowledge it creates not only lends invaluable support to the department itself, but also makes it a research resource for all city agencies.

The other of us, Nancy Holt, leads Science for New York, which also strives to bring policy makers and scientists together through project-based interaction. Recent, ongoing collaborations between Sci4NY and T+G are lending support to public outreach efforts on food waste for the New York Department of Sanitation’s nonprofit foundation, as well as developing ways that scientists might work more closely with the city to address challenges in local communities.

The advantages of such an experiential learning program for graduate students who want to pursue a career in policy are significant. It allows them to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle that they need to successfully apply for jobs and other professional endeavors: experience. The completed projects count as employment on résumés, and the project clients can serve as professional references for students. As graduate programs in the pure sciences are currently structured, obtaining such experience is challenging, to say the least.

In addition, experiential learning along these lines gives graduate students needed time to pursue their interest in policy issues. Most research advisers expect their graduate students to be in the lab for many hours beyond the standard workweek, which notably hinders students’ ability to engage with policy makers. Dedicating a formal class to experiential learning gives those students the opportunity to work on these projects as part of their academic coursework.

These programs also offer students general policy literacy—a skill that cannot be easily acquired through typical policy seminar or certificate courses that career development offices are starting to offer students in the pure sciences. This kind of knowledge is particularly important in today’s political climate, regardless of whether a graduate student pursues a career in policy or not.

Graduate Programs Must Evolve

Colleges and universities that create these programs should keep several points in mind: local government is particularly challenging to grasp effectively as an outsider. One key reason is that information on local government is sparser than on the federal level, and the paths to direct government interaction are generally more limited. Thus, recruiting policy-savvy instructors with established government relationships and professional experience to teach policy skills to graduate students in the sciences can greatly enrich the process.

Providing academic credit for these programs is also essential. Today, giving academic credit for work that is not part of a student’s direct research path is not standard practice at advanced degree–granting programs in the pure sciences. Yet from a municipal perspective, working with capstone classes is a commonly accepted method of collaboration. In government terms, it is not viewed as a procurement of services, but rather an in-kind exchange. In other words, the students provide their academic-honed skills, and, in turn, the government offers real-world research questions and associated data, along with practitioner expertise that supports students’ professional development.

Thus, academic credit is central to this kind of transactional exchange from a local government’s perspective: such an arrangement allows students to participate in projects in easily demonstrable ways that show compliance with various labor laws. Seen through the capstone lens, creating this option would enhance the overall student experience as well as overcome a key logistical barrier that arises when trying to work with local government.

Currently, higher education institutions largely seem to be staying the course—that is, doing what they know best by churning out more academics. Professors and university administrators may see advancing nonacademic career paths as beyond their goals. But that would be missing the point, as the scientific enterprise can’t succeed without offering new programmatic opportunities that help recruit the best students. In Darwinian sciencespeak, those institutions that don’t evolve will become extinct.

In addition, the fact is that experiential learning benefits not only the graduate students but also the institutions that offer these programs. The main selling features many graduate programs use to attract applicants are their postgraduation employment placement rates and other professional development opportunities. Particularly in these times, when many scientists no longer wind up in traditional academic career paths, students are starting to look at metrics for postgraduation job placement when they choose a graduate school. International students may especially be attracted to institutions that offer such programs, because participation in project-based work through an embedded academic course generally does not require citizenship.

Moreover, students who are able to engage effectively with policy makers and the public will not only be better advocates for enhancing the role of science in society—along with scientific funding—but also probably more generous donors to their alma maters. And not to be forgotten in this equation is the public, whom science is supposed to benefit and policy is supposed to serve. Greatly 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 communities for all of us.

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