GovHelp: Why Don’t More Professors Get Students to Solve Real Problems?

Home Forums Miscellaneous GovHelp: Why Don’t More Professors Get Students to Solve Real Problems?

This topic contains 11 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Chris Poirier 6 years, 10 months ago.

  • Author
  • #146859

    Did you see this article in which a Georgetown professor has mobilized his classes to study Chinese nuclear weapons arsenals? An excerpt:

    The Chinese have called it their “Underground Great Wall” — a vast network of tunnels designed to hide their country’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear arsenal.

    For the past three years, a small band of obsessively dedicated students at Georgetown University has called it something else: homework.

    Led by their hard-charging professor, a former top Pentagon official, they have translated hundreds of documents, combed through satellite imagery, obtained restricted Chinese military documents and waded through hundreds of gigabytes of online data.

    The result of their effort? The largest body of public knowledge about thousands of miles of tunnels dug by the Second Artillery Corps, a secretive branch of the Chinese military in charge of protecting and deploying its ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.

    I know that government partners with universities on a variety of projects through formal agreements and projects. But I’m wondering how many college and university professors are merely critiquing government in their classes versus deciding to mobilize students through their assignments to accomplish something that brings real value.

    A couple ideas:

    • Why don’t agencies put a call out to English teachers to have their students assist with the HUGE lift required under the Plain Writing Act of 2010?
    • In order to sort out the Open Government Plans, GovLoop was asked by the White House to create a dataset of the Open Government Projects. I serendipitously discovered a Ph.D. candidate who was writing her dissertation around the subject and already had completed a lot of the research…so we turned it into an infographic. Are there other datasets and visualizations that could be created from academic research that could be shared back to government?

    By engaging students in this manner, government organizations and academic institutions are able to leverage the energy of thousands of students as a creative way to supplement public sector staffing during a period of austerity, give them real problems to solve rather than relatively meaningless assignments that are ends in themselves and improve our national perspective of government by exposing the next generation of potential public servants to the challenges we face. In fact, here’s what one student said in response to the project:

    Beyond its impact in the policy world, the project has made a profound mark on the students — including some who have since graduated and taken research jobs with the Defense Department and Congress.

    “I don’t even want to know how many hours I spent on it,” said Nick Yarosh, 22, an international politics senior at Georgetown. “But you ask people what they did in college, most just say I took this class, I was in this club. I can say I spent it reading Chinese nuclear strategy and Second Artillery manuals. For a nerd like me, that really means something.”

    How is this happening already?

    What other ideas do you have?

    Photo Credit:

  • #146881

    Chris Poirier

    Completely agree and further ask: “Why stop at colleges?”

    Granted, there are many high level, national issues that probably should only be handed off to ever capable PhD and MS/MA candidates, however there are plenty of local issues that all that is needed is an open mind. I’ve advocated for some time that a lot of public outreach programs for cities and states could be assisted by high school level students (under supervision of course). My home high school (Rutland High School) has a program where part of the year was dedicated to full-time elective study called Y.E.S. Plan. Y.E.S. Plan allows students to take electives that interest them: Anything from learning a language not normally offered, a vocation, or community based projects. This was an awesome experience as it allowed the school to engage the community and young minds even BEFORE college.

  • #146879

    Like…especially STEM classes!

  • #146877

    Chris Poirier

    All kinds of stuff. I went on shift at the local Fire Department. (Was already certified in the state, etc added full-time experience to my volunteer experience.) Others did forestry related projects with local parks. Some did direct engagement type activities across the city.

    Depending on the High School the options are endless. I can see support to websites, data collection for GIS mapping (did some of that as well for the state forest service), etc.

    A lot of issues localities have is getting the data to then even start doing something open about it. Doesn’t take a college degree to help collect and format, but teaches about the entire data management process, etc.

    …it’s a good thing. 😉

  • #146875

    Bill Brantley

    @Andy – It’s a great idea but you need a good group of committed students to pull it off. I have had opportunities for students to design logos for companies, create marketing campaigns, run newsletters, etc. Of all of these real-world opportunities, only two students out of 25 that initially showed interest actually followed through. Even when it was a paid opportunity, many students still didn’t do the work.

    Also, there are a great many regulations and policies that a professor has to follow before requiring students to do work. I once had a paralegal class where the instructor would assign her actual classes to us to research and prepare materials for. The university found out and she was fired mid-semester. Just too much chance for conflict-of-interest.

  • #146873

    Amanda Parker

    I couldn’t agree more. I completed my Undergraduate degree at Northeastern University (a leader in cooperative education) and I can honestly say that everything I am doing now–all of my professional and leadership skills–are owed to their belief in the principles of experiential education. Aside from looking for interns there is a huge opportunity for creating Service-Learning projects with local universities. As an example, part of my capstone course for my MPP we were put into teams and acted as consultants for federal agencies and non-profit organizations to work on real projects. For more information on experiential education (or Work-Integrated Learning, as it is sometime called) and Service-Learning see and

  • #146871

    Jack Shaw

    It has been said that most application of what we learn in college does not gel for about two years education. For those students who worked while attending school the application takes place almost immediately. So, I’m a big fan of programs that allow students the opportunity to work and contribute in the real world as a part of their education. For graduate students, the opportunity to apply their knowledge and work on specific problems as part of their degree program has as much practical value as a thesis or dissertation, although I’m sure on the academic side there would be some disagreement.

    Ironically, some professors have only been professors and stick to the academic program. It may come down to is the definition of education and training for a profession, and some schools are still thinking about what they want to be known for. However, I think every major should have a practicum where they work on projects like you describe.

    For those of us who worked for many years and now teach I find we are regarded skeptically as teachers because we are prone to teach application of what is learned in the classroom as well. In theory, a good thing, but it takes extra class time. Naturally, real life scenarios are worked on class–but nothing beats the real thing. Depending on the environment, students vary in terms of willingness to step outside the box (ironically) of the learning institution while others jump at the chance to apply what they learn. Those who already work and go to school understand the difficulty of spreading themselves too thin, but others may only experience real time application after graduation. They should do it just for the exposure, networking, and mentoring possibilities, but some aren’t ready.

  • #146869

    Ah – thats the rub, Bill. I could see how it would be conflict of interest to have a professor do his/her work…but what if an agency/city/state partnered with a professor/class to solve a tough problem? Does that make a difference? Per your first point, if they’re being graded as part of an assignment, they have to complete the task, right?

  • #146867

    Amanda Parker

    I agree about the issue of motivating students, but I think Andrew’s right. The idea is that it needs to be clear an assignment is an assignment. While I was an undergrad I was a teaching assistant for a class with a service-learning requirement and the first day we spent a lot of time trying to explain to students that the expectations of meeting this requirement was no different than any other assignment. Meeting with the community partner was no different from any project requiring a group meeting or a trip to the library. Even that paying for a couple of bus trips to and from the partner site was no different from paying for printing class materials or buying other school supplies. I agree that not all students followed through, but we found we were more successful when we had this discussion outright and took the time to explain how the experience could benefit them. Eventually, the school was also able to get a code designating these service-learning courses in the registration system to further highlight the requirement when students decide to take the course.

  • #146865

    Brian Gryth


    At my agency, we will be working with the Denver University’s School of Business and its experiential learning program to have MBA candidates research projects that we either do not have time to do or do not have the skill sets. We are also looking into ways of partnering with a local university to analyze data produced by our office and thus add value to the information we collect.

    In Law School, I participated in a consortium project run by the Minnesota Justice Foundation that had law students research legal issues for attorneys in the legal aide community, public defenders office, and other public sector attorneys. The idea is the law students have the time and resources to research marco legal questions that a practicing attorney can’t and still serve clients. See more information at the Legal Scholarship for Equal Justice program Web site. In Colorado, the University of Colorado’s Law School has a similar effort that allows law student to do research for practice attorneys.

    Finally, I am my Division’s coordinator for my agency’s fellowship program . We are working on making our program a project based fellowship where a student is given a project to manage and complete. A project that needs to be completed. These fellows will work with my unit that supports the operational units. So there is nothing stopping us from working with a professor or university to give the project to a class to solve.

    Thanks, Brian

  • #146863

    Jack Shaw

    Even though my old Agency’s experience with Interns was mixed, I still think a dynamic program can provide real benefits. I think the problem lies with leadership on both sides. Leaders in the agency–especially those with close contact with the students–have to be great advocates of the program and sell it well in the government agency, and on the education side, the same goes for advisor/leader for the program in their institution allied with the government or industry. There has to be a real meeting of the minds on both sides for a program to work.

  • #146861

    Bill Brantley

    @Andy: No problem with partnerships as long as all the rules are followed. The university that I teach at has a great service learning program that has been quite successful (but it took some time and careful planning).

    As to being graded: that hasn’t stopped some students from not completing their classroom assignments much less a service project. From my perspective, it took a lot of work to create the opportunity in the first place and I put my reputation on the line several times with the service partner. Yes, the student who didn’t follow through gets a failing grade but I also lost a valuable service partner and future students lost a great learning opportunity.

    I also agree with the other commentators in that nothing teaches better than an actual real-world situation. Again, the irony is that several of the students who didn’t follow through were also the biggest complainers that I was not providing a “real-world education.” I completely agree with what you say but the students also have to realize that their real-world experience calls for a real-world commitment from them.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.