Reflections and Lessons from the 1st Annual MetroLab Network Student Cup

Local universities and colleges present a potential wealth of knowledge, expertise, and motivated student workers to cities. However, for a variety of reasons, engaging students with civic research is not always easy. For one, there is no standardized format for cities to interface with students and create ongoing projects. It can also be difficult to coordinate city needs with research interests and faculty incentives. Additionally, the semester and quarter systems of classes do not clearly align with city timelines. For example, the semester-long student project is restricted by the temporal and subject matter confines of the class that ends when the semester does, while cities require continued participation. In sum, student participation and engagement with community highlighted civic problems represent a major barrier to maximizing city-university partnerships.

As part of the 2020 MetroLab Network Annual Summit, we hosted the first annual Student Cup project competition to engage with students at MetroLab Network member universities. One of MetroLab’s long term strategic goals is to facilitate university-city collaboration that includes students, and the Student Cup was a successful event that highlighted student civic research. As a student (i.e. PhD Candidate) myself at Northeastern University and an experiential Research Fellow at the MetroLab Network for the fall 2020 semester, I was given the opportunity to organize and run the student cup event.

MetroLab Network’s first annual Student Cup was successful in increasing the exposure of student-run civic research and connecting emerging civic practitioners with civic leaders and academics outside of their usual community. Students were invited to submit individual or group civic research projects, where they partnered with their local city and civic organizations to target problems highlighted by their communities. Students from 19 different universities submitted 49 total projects from which we selected 12 semi-finalists to compete for a grand prize. Relative to other programming, the Student Cup was a small investment, but the events brought new participants into the MetroLab Network ecosystem and connected students with civic practitioners and researchers.

Organizing and running the Cup highlighted some of the issues cities face when trying to better engage with their local universities and their students. For example, many of the submitted projects did not have a civic partner at all or, if they did, the civic partner was only marginally involved. This disconnect illustrates some of the interfacing issues between cities and students. The interface issue could come from a variety of challenges including, among others, a lack of connection between faculty members leading civic research courses and the city’s civic organizations, the limited scope of university courses that leave out civic partnerships, or a mismatch between course goals and civic needs. Making connections between civic organizations and students is not an easy task and will continue to present a challenge. In terms of the Student Cup, the 12 semi-finalists that were chosen all had strong civic partnership work.

In addition to civic partnerships, the semester structure origin of many of the projects was clear in the scope and applicability of the projects. With the exception of projects that were part of a larger post-graduate program’s thesis or capstone, many of the submitted projects, and even some of the semi-finalists, were only conceptualized and not fully implemented, carried out, or generalizable. Our grand prize winner was a project that (1) was rooted in a community-identified issue; (2) had a civic partnership that informed real civic changes; (3) had ample time to be performed, implemented, and reflected upon; and (4) could be potentially generalizable to other communities and localities. While this was the MetroLab Network’s first student competition and there were a limited number of entries, a clear divider between the entries not chosen to advance, the semi-finalists, and the winners was the presence of deliverable with clear output or outcome measurements. Not every semi-finalist or winning project had physically delivered their deliverable at the time of the presentation, but it was clear what that deliverable would be and how the students, civic organization, and city would know that the project was having an effect. Future entrants should be cognizant of the importance of civic organization partnerships and clear, measurable outputs or outcomes.

Going forward, the 1st Annual Student Cup represents a stepping stone for future student engagement projects and events. While sponsoring student fellowships and issuing research grants is expensive and time intensive, events that are smaller in scope can fill a crucial gap in interfacing and engaging with students. These smaller events do not necessarily need to occur across the entire MetroLab network and could occur within any specific city-university partnership. For example, cities could coordinate a competition or similar program with their university partners to focus on a locality specific issue. Alternatively, cities could coordinate with partners to run a program where student projects work under a specific group of civic organizations. The main goal is to connect students with the issues and organizations of their city, so any coordinated event should work to do so. In addition to any prizes that can be given to winners, students benefit from feedback from new voices that they do not usually hear from, and participating in events like the student cup panels allows for new avenues of feedback. Additionally, students benefit from connecting to new people outside of their ecosystem. That said, future events do not necessarily need to take the form of a competition. Students could benefit from smaller symposium or panel formats focused on specific civic research topics to receive feedback from new sources. Additionally, networking can take place in more of a social atmosphere rather than the competitive atmosphere of the student cup.

In terms of personal experience, facilitating the student cup was similar to teaching where evaluating student projects to be semi-finalists is akin to grading assignments. I created a rubric based upon our submission criteria and evaluated the projects based upon the rubric. Then I created an additional rubric for the rest of the team to evaluate the projects and decide which projects would advance to the semi-final rounds. While not the only way to evaluate submissions, the rubrics were effective at filtering a number of projects similar to the number that could be submitted in a class. That said, the ability to then interact with the semi-finalists before and after their event panels was an opportunity not usually presented to graders to see more about the project they just evaluated and to interact with other students. Additionally, being a student myself in political science, it was a good experience to see civic research from a diverse number of angles and into a variety of issues. Interacting with the judges was also a great experience in networking with civic researchers throughout the MetroLab Network that is not easily replicated in other forms. Running the student cup was a valuable experience as part of my experiential fellowship with the MetroLab Network. Seeing firsthand some of the issues cities face when engaging with academics and civic leaders will inform my own practices going forward with my career. As I plan my dissertation to be more practitioner focused, I hope to contribute to the growing field and be a part of the ecosystem of civic researchers. In the coming years, I hope to be in the position to be asked to be a future student cup judge and help the next wave of civic researchers.

Garrett Morrow is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University. His dissertation looks at the politics and public trust of smart city policies, data, and algorithms. During Fall 2020, Garrett was also an Experiential Research Fellow with us here at MetroLab. His work was funded through the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Garrett can be reached at morrow.g@northeastern.edu.

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