UniverCity Year offers UW-Madison faculty chance to partner with Wisconsin communities in 2022

University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty and instructors looking to incorporate real-world projects into their courses and provide hands-on experiences for students are encouraged to join the UniverCity Year program.

UniverCity Year puts the Wisconsin Idea in action by pairing communities across Wisconsin looking to solve challenges with faculty and students. This three-year program, now in its seventh year, aims to improve the sustainability, resiliency and wellbeing of Wisconsin’s communities.

Jules Reynolds, a PhD student and teaching assistant in Geography and Environment and Resources, sees a direct connection between working with communities and student outcomes.

“We’ve noticed that student projects closely linked to the community organizations tend to be most successful and durable in terms of their impacts,” said Reynolds, who will be working closely with UniverCity Year as a project assistant in Holly Gibbs’ Geography / Environmental Studies 309 class called “People, Land and Food.”

Reynolds’ observation is bolstered by results from a survey of students enrolled in UCY classes in Fall 2021. Among the 46 respondents, 80 percent of students reported that UCY projects made class more engaging and 89 percent said the experience improved their ability to apply what they learned.

In 2022, UniverCity is working with six communities: City of Stoughton, Town of Germantown,  Outagamie, Columbia and Polk counties; and a collaboration between the City of Sun Prairie, the Towns of Deerfield and Cottage Grove, and the Friends of Koshkonong Creek.

Gavin Luter photo“We know the demand for working with UW-Madison students and faculty exists across the entire state, said UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter. “What we need is more faculty to join us in making their classes and expertise available to partner with our communities.”

Though the concept is simple, this partnership yields powerful results. Local government partners identify projects that could benefit from additional expertise, UW-Madison faculty representing a variety of academic areas incorporate them into their classes and UniverCity Year staff provide administrative support to ensure successful collaboration.

Community partners can be interested in planning specific projects to grappling with overarching trends.

For example, the City of Stoughton is working toward expanding Wisconsin’s first FabLab–an MIT-developed program that engages grade-school students in experiential learning–into a community-based innovation center while the Town of Germantown is planning for future services amid increased population growth.

“The resources of the University of Wisconsin are immense, however the greatest resource is simply connecting people with interest, knowledge, experience and skills in a topic or problem and allowing them to collaborate with the community to explore problems and ideas,” said Gary Becker of GWB Professional Services, who is Stoughton’s planning and economic development consultant.

Other communities are asking for help with projects such as community branding/messaging, public building energy efficiency and equipment upgrades, sustainability planning, creative funding options for government services, needs assessments, economic development planning, child care affordability and access, and housing and homelessness, just to name a few.

UniverCity Year began partnering with communities in 2016 and worked with the City of Monona on over 40 projects. Since then, UniverCity has worked with 13 additional communities and maintains an ongoing relationship with the City of Madison.

Faculty from across all academic disciplines are encouraged to join the program as community partners are excited to work with the university on a variety of projects. Topics have ranged from transportation and housing to health, agriculture, childcare, economic development and the arts.

Partner communities are looking forward to making progress on their goals. Kara Homan, Outagamie County’s director of Development and Land Services, said the county has limited resources to address a range of issues, like affordable housing, childcare, resiliency and sustainability, that the pandemic exacerbated.

Homan said she’s excited by the “the ability to embrace the Wisconsin Idea, and leverage the assets of the university system, its students, and partner with them to make a difference and move our county forward.”

A common theme among the four communities UniverCity worked with in 2021 was diversity, equity and inclusion. The Village of Waunakee, for example, worked closely with the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin to promote cultural awareness of the First Nation.

Partnering with UniverCity Year also provides an enhanced learning experience for students.

“(Community-based learning) really helps anchor the priority of public health and makes sure that we’re meeting specific needs of communities and leveraging evidence to help support our recommendations and intervention strategies,” said Maria Morgen, a student in Master of Public Health program who worked with Adams County.

Faculty interested in partnering with this program are encouraged to contact gavin@cows.org.

—By Abigail Becker