“Just Start!” – Gonzaga University and City of Spokane Partnership Highlights Benefits of University-Agency Project Engagement
Posted on September, 25th 2019
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:
- Working with the City helped foster my professional development while also allowing me to meet some of the wonderful people who drive Spokane’s continued development. I was able to see first-hand, the support and passion many of our leaders have towards issues regarding sustainability. I hope that projects like these will continue into the future, promoting mutually beneficial University-community connections.
- …the most fulfilling part of working on this project was understanding how my individual actions taken during the course of this project (e.g., collaborating with different partners, gathering details activity data, and using the latest methods for calculating greenhouse gas emissions) could ultimately be used to guide social and political measures aimed at addressing greenhouse gas emissions mitigation efforts.
- This project has been filled with rewarding experiences that allowed me to grow as a student and gain valuable professional development…I look forward to using the skills I gained from this project in many situations in my career.
- This project not only improved my professionalism, it also helped strengthen the technical writing and communication skills that have been essential to my coursework at Gonzaga.
- This project allowed me to expand the technical GIS skills I learned through my university studies to a pressing community issue. The privilege I was granted working on a project that has the potential to change institutional policy and strengthen the Spokane community gave me a great sense of belonging as student and as a community member.
- Perhaps the most rewarding aspect has been seeing the appreciation of our work from the client and members of the City. It really makes our time and efforts feel valuable. It has been interesting putting knowledge of greenhouse gases and city emissions to use and seeing firsthand how they are applied at the local government level. The experience I have gained working in this professional setting, and with local government operations, has been very beneficial to my academic experience.
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.”