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Bringing the Classroom to Life: Ford School Practicum Courses

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In the 2007–08 academic year, the Ford School offered two practicum classes, linking MPP students with local clients to allow students to put their skills to the test with real-world policy work. The Ford School added practicum electives to its MPP curriculum several years ago as a way to blend the deliberation and rigor of an academic setting with the dynamism and practicality of a real-world policy setting.

Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy, designed an Education Policy Practicum aimed at connecting small groups of students with "clients" in the education sector. These clients included individual schools, school districts, and non-profit organizations. Each project was designed to meet specific client needs and expose students to the political and practical issues of the sector through substantive, policy-related evaluation and research.

Education Practicum partners include the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, Washtenaw Success by 6, A Great Start Initiative, and The Michigan Department of Education's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

First year MPP student Lishaun Francis worked with the Michigan Department of Education to "assess teacher supply and demand in the state of Michigan." Lishaun's assigned tasks included many real-world activities such as conducting "research, data analysis, making suggestions, and advising [the organization] on the best way to go about [accomplishing their goals]." Francis appreciated the opportunity to apply her coursework and use the practicum as preparation for future policy-related work.

Elisabeth Gerber, a Professor of Public Policy, taught the second practicum course, which was called the Applied Policy Seminar. Instead of focusing on a specific policy area, the Applied Policy Seminar students worked with Washtenaw County to gauge opportunities for consolidating some of its services with other regional government agencies.

Gerber's course allowed students with strong core quantitative and reasoning skills the opportunity to serve as consultants applying "a wide range of skills, tools and knowledge to a specific set of research questions." Field work activities were supplemented with the discussion of "relevant background materials" in a traditional classroom setting.

Second year MPP student Michael Snavely took the Applied Policy Seminar. Snavely's project partnered with the 9-1-1 Dispatch Centers in Washtenaw County to help consolidate call centers for more efficient and cost-effective operations. He likens his experience in the practicum to a capstone project that put his classroom skills to practice.

Snavely echoed Francis's belief that working directly for a client helped to broaden his work experience and provide meaningful material for future in policy-related consulting. Said Snaveley, "these courses are a great way to tie in and refine skills that you learn throughout the two years in ways that are beyond what people end up doing in internships."

In addition to providing hands-on experience, a practicum differs from a traditional course in terms of class meetings and assessment. Jacob's course spanned the entire academic year with the full class of students only meeting formally every two weeks. Smaller groups of students were expected to meet more frequently as their projects progressed. At the end of the year, students were assessed by the strength of their final report as well as the evaluations of their peers, the professor, and the client. The students in Professor Gerber's class were also granted more autonomy "to design and develop a research methodology and project plan, and to produce a professional quality report and presentation [for their clients]."