“Just Start!” – Gonzaga University and City of Spokane Partnership Highlights Benefits of University-Agency Project Engagement

The West Region Transportation Workforce Center supports increased student engagement in real world project-based learning experiences by fostering partnerships between universities and public agencies. To this end, the WRTWC sponsored the participation of representatives from regional universities and public agencies at the 2018 Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) national conference, held in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference provided opportunities to learn the nuts and bolts of a model for large-scale university-agency partnerships and provided time for strategic planning between potential agency and university partners. Conference presenters’ and trainers’ advice to interested participants was to “just start” partnership activities. 

Conference participants from Gonzaga University and the City of Spokane took the “just start” advice to heart.  Following the conference, they embarked on a year-long collaboration to engage students in developing a City of Spokane community and local government operations Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Inventory report. The project collaboration engaged 8 undergraduate students and 1 graduate student over a full academic year to complete the report, which covered both local government operations and a community-scale GHG inventory. The transportation sector contributes a significant portion of GHG emissions, and the report serves as a resource to decisionmakers in identifying energy savings and emission reduction strategies.

Project support from the City ensured that the agency received a high-quality, usable product while ensuring that students developed professional skills by providing opportunities for them to present their work to various audiences. The City supported a graduate student to provide technical writing support and to review the final report, as well as travel to the Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference in Seattle where students presented a poster on “Spokane Counts Carbon: Delivering Local Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Inventories through the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) Model.” Students also presented their work to the Mayor’s Cabinet and at City Council meetings, which spurred support for pursuing more of these types of collaborative partnerships.

The students who participated in collaborative projects reported several positive workforce development impacts, as highlighted in student testimonials provided in the GHG Emissions Report appendix:

Students noted that opportunities to engage directly with elected officials and municipal decisionmakers and to make meaningful contributions to community efforts to address climate change were especially significant. The testimonials also underscore the additional professional skills they gained (e.g. working on teams, technical writing, and presentation skills) through participation on the project.

Student professional development was deliberately designed into the project by the City’s Environmental and Sustainability Director and project lead, Cadie Olsen, who is dedicated to workforce development. She made sure that the project was designed in such a way as to engage students in all aspects of the project, so they were able to participate in the entire process just like staff. The City was pleased with the high quality of the final product, which previously had been a heavy lift for in-house staff. Cadie also noted that the expertise and credibility of the faculty advisor, Civil Engineering professor Alex Maxwell, and the professionalism of the students both served to raise the level of public discourse around greenhouse gas emissions during public meetings. The inventory helps decisionmakers identify issues, but also validates successful strategies. For instance, inventory results demonstrated that Spokane’s transportation sector emissions – even considering air travel – are much lower than the rest of Washington State, which lends support to the City’s aggressive infill development policies and its strong regional transit partnerships, which emphasize multi-modal transportation.

Gonzaga University and the City of Spokane are embarking on additional project partnerships over the current and coming academic year.  As Cadie notes, “Spokane is a ‘show me’ town, so this pilot provided a powerful proof of concept for the EPIC-N model to many City leaders, specifically resulting in greater higher education collaborations between the City’s Innovation and Technology, Streets, and Integrated Capital divisions.”