New Research and Policy Engagement program at Ford School helps students collaborate with organizations

Friday, May 11, 2018 - 4:38pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Made possible by a $1.5 million gift from the Power Foundation, a new program for the University of Michigan will be housed in the Ford School of Public Policy to engage students and faculty with people and organizations in public policy.

Elisabeth Gerber, Public Policy associate dean for research and policy engagement, will be leading the new program known as the Program in Practical Policy Engagement (P3E). This program creates learning opportunities for students outside of a classroom setting, while allowing students and faculty to collaborate with different types of organizations whether they be governmental organizations or nonprofits.

“The intention of the program is to make it easier and more accessible for students and faculty to engage with real world policy organizations, working on real problems,” Gerber said. “We’re not really organized to engage with organizations outside of our campus.”

When finding organizations to work with, Gerber said it is important to ensure that the skills of the students and faculty match the type of problem that needs to be solved. P3E can help with the matching of these organizations. 

“Finding that match, it’s time consuming, it takes practice, it takes patience, it takes cultural competency depending on the types of organizations that we’re working with,” Gerber said.

Methods of engaging with outside organizations currently exist within the University, however they are disjointed. P3E’s goal is to bring together those on campus who are working with these organizations.

Matt Naud, environmental coordinator for Ann Arbor, has worked on projects with Public Policy students before. One of the projects involved water equity, or how payments for water are determined, in Ann Arbor. University students brought ideas for different ways to examine the issue.

“This group of students helped provide insight into ways other communities have been looking at this and tools we might be able to take on outside of the rate function itself,” Naud said. “... Other ways we can better understand how people in the community use water and pay for it and are there ways we can work with them and nonprofits to make sure the rates we set are as fair as possible.”

Naud said many times students are able to investigate and look at issues in a way that other hired consultants don’t. For example, Naud said hired consultants set the rates for the water, but the students were able to talk to lower-income areas and get a sense of the nature of the problem.

“I think it's more and more important for the University to figure out how to create these applied research opportunities for these students because 90 percent of the times it’s probably helping the students more than the client,” Naud said. “But that's okay because a few of the times it’s going to be really awesome work for me, something that I would never have been able to do and then most of the time it’s moving the ball forward on something I couldn’t do myself.”

Naud said most of the projects he’s worked on with students have been organized through his own contacts within the University. Having a more formal and systematic way to connect on these projects would be beneficial, Naud said, something P3E can help with.

Currently, this program will be more applicable to graduate students due to the nature of their courses in the Public Policy School. The resources from P3E hope to extend the relationships students build with an organization past just one semester.

“Thirteen weeks of a semester is often not enough time for the organization to act on the insights provided the students or faculty,” Gerber said. “How do you create some of that continuity, so that if the problem takes longer than 13 weeks to solve we don’t have to give up part way?”

Public Policy graduate student Sruthi Naraharisetti wrote that her experience working with a state government helped her gain valuable experiences.

"One of the main reasons I came to policy school was to improve my ability to be a connector between people, policy, and its application,” Naraharisetti wrote. “This program (P3E) gives students a hands-on opportunity to do just that by providing space to apply skills beyond the classroom. People are complex and policy is complex — this program provides students space to gain a deeper understanding of these nuances and become more prepared for the challenges that will be faced when entering back into the workforce.”

Some goals Gerber has for the program include diversifying the organizations that students and faculty get to engage with, strengthening relationships with current clients and organizations and bringing in mentors for students.

“Another element to add is to start bringing in more mentors from outside the University, not project clients but people with experience in the area that the students are working in,” Gerber said. “(Mentors would) help them both understand the broader policy context but also to help the students understand how do you work with nonprofit organization or a county government or a state government agency or a private sector company doing policy work.”