Capstone projects provide real-world training and policymaking opportunities

Students present a slideshow in a classroom.
Students present findings from their capstone reports at the end of the spring semester.

Nearly four dozen students from the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW–Madison concluded their graduate education this spring by completing projects addressing real-world challenges on behalf of clients from the public, non-governmental, and private sectors.

Working in teams of four to six, the students completed nine capstone projects as part of the coursework for the La Follette School’s Workshop in Public Affairs and Workshop in International Public Affairs. Professors Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Gregory Nemet, and Manuel P. Teodoro taught the courses and advised the students on their projects.

“The high value we put on hands-on learning at La Follette is embodied in the capstone projects our students undertake,” Halpern-Meekin said. “These partnerships between La Follette students and local, state, national, and international organizations and governments support students in putting to use the skills they’ve gained in graduate school and contribute to real-world policy work, while also building the portfolio of projects that will help launch the next stage of students’ careers.”

A student speaks into a microphone while presenting to an audience.
As part of the course, students work in teams to answer policy questions posed by real-world clients.

In addition to building the students’ portfolios, the resulting reports generated by the students could also be used to help organizations as diverse as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the City of La Crosse, Outagamie County and the Greater Fox Valley Child Care Alliance, and Open Development Cambodia, to solve problems that could be addressed through public policy.

“The capstone projects are such a meaningful part of a La Follette education because they fit perfectly with the Wisconsin Idea,” Teodoro said. “Our students’ findings in these projects are going to shape actual policy decisions in the real world.”

The Government Accountability Office

The report conducted for the GAO investigated differences in the growth of science, technology, engineering, and math research between the 28 states and territories in The National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and jurisdictions not included in the program. While finding that research and doctoral degrees have increased in the program regions, the report makes recommendations about how to improve the program by finding new ways to identify and engage underserved and underrepresented students, among other things.

The City of La Crosse

For the La Crosse report, the students addressed the heat island effect in the city of La Crosse and its impact on the community. It analyzed policy options to mitigate heat effects through the expansion of green spaces within the city and recommends a combination of tree canopy and pocket park expansion within census tracts that lack access to urban green space and contain vulnerable populations.

Outagamie County and the Fox Valley Child Care Alliance

Another team partnered with Outagamie County and the Fox Valley Child Care Alliance to understand how child care availability affects Fox Valley area employers and what they view as challenges and solutions. Based on the findings, this report recommended that Outagamie County begin researching the development of a community fund, foster employer partnerships that support local and state government actions, and encourage businesses to consider providing defined child care benefits.

Open Development Cambodia

The capstone projects even touched on international affairs. The authors of a report commissioned by Open Development Cambodia investigated regulations in the extractive industries in Cambodia. Their analysis found a need for greater transparency and provided recommendations to help the industries in Cambodia work toward that end.

All told, the students’ high-level analysis across the nine projects could have real-world implications for policymaking from the local level all the way up to the international level. At the same time, the students gained practical experience applying the tools of political, economic, and statistical analysis and evaluation. They also gained experience writing in-depth reports and giving high-level presentations when they delivered their findings to the clients at the conclusion of the semester.

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