New policy lab course mixes hands-on training with classroom instruction

A new course offered at CMC provides a mix of classroom instruction with hands-on experiential learning, and has proven a hit with both students and teachers.

GOVT100 CM – Domestic Public Policy Analysis with Lab, or Policy Lab for short – explores the politics and processes of domestic policymaking in the U.S., the analytical tools for policy creation, and client-based, experiential approaches to policy research and formation. 

Through a case study approach, students gain the knowledge and skills required to produce professional policy studies. In addition to instruction and class projects, students work in a policy laboratory with a Washington, D.C.-based client to conduct research and analysis on a real-world policy question.

“We have had two classes of 12-14 students and worked with two different think tanks,” said Zachary Courser ’99, research director of the Dreier Roundtable and a visiting assistant professor of government, who, along with Eric Helland – the William F. Podlich Professor of Economics and George R. Roberts Fellow – heads up the new course. 

“For the past year we’ve worked with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) on a project on health care,” Courser said. “The final report, which Policy Lab students contributed to, was presented at the BPC’s offices in D.C. Last semester we started a project with the RAND Corporation’s Institute for Civil Justice. More generally we have had several students from the lab go on to work at D.C. think tanks AEI and Brookings, including one of our spring semester lab managers, Will Palmisano PO ’17, who is a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.”

The course was initiated at CMC when the professors received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to start the class.

“We have both worked extensively with public policy think tanks and felt like there was really an opportunity to involve students in public policy research,” Helland said. “The issue is that while a number of CMC students work for one of the on-campus institutes (Lowe, FEI, Rose, etc.) and many in the D.C. program get a chance to be a research assistant at a think tank such as AEI or Brookings, a number of students still didn’t have these opportunities, and there wasn’t really a way for them to get this experience. The Policy Lab is designed to do that. I’ve also been really happy to see how many students from other colleges we’ve had.”

Helland added that with the assistance of Prof. Shanna Rose, CMC has recently started a public policy sequence geared toward providing students interested in policy work a set of classes in which they can acquire more skills and exposure to the policy process. Rose is the director of the sequence and will offer several courses in public policy and research methodology.

“This means that going forward the lab is going to have the capacity to take on a wider variety of projects,” Helland said.

Currently, students in the course are focusing on research methods such as statistics and dealing with data visualizations and policy writing, with a fair amount of time devoted to studying the policy process. Students end the course by working on their own policy proposals.

“When we say the new course provides a client-based experiential approach to policy research, what we mean is that students work with a client such as RAND or the BPC,” Courser said. “They are typically involved in building data, analysis or determining policy positions, and they then report these back to the client. Often this is an interactive process in which the previous project sparks a new direction to the research. The key is that Prof. Helland and I aren’t the ones dealing with the clients. That’s largely done by the students, so it’s a very hands-on experience.”

Added one of the spring semester lab managers, Grace Lee ’17, a PPE major who is now a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government: “I took the Policy Lab course because I was attracted to the course’s quantitative and analytical approach to studying public policy. One of the most valuable things about the class is the client-based model of researching public policy. I think the skills I learned in the class of having to meet client deadlines and be in continuous communication with them on the progress of the project prepared me well for future jobs in policy research.”