Now in its seventh year, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s UniverCity Year program is working with six communities stretching from the neighboring City of Stoughton to Polk County in northwest Wisconsin.
UniverCity Year (UCY) is the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance–an initiative that connects local governments across Wisconsin with resources at the university. Through the three-year UCY program, students and faculty work with communities to work toward locally-identified goals.
From planning specific projects to grappling with overarching trends, UniverCity connects communities with university resources to solve challenges spanning a variety of topics.
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 in an effort to resolve workforce shortages.
“We have some fascinating projects to explore, focused on experiential learning and the idea of working with UW-Madison classes to provide direct experience opportunities to students is almost poetic,” said Gary Becker of GWB Professional Services, who is Stoughton’s planning and economic development consultant.
Meanwhile, the Town of Germantown in Juneau County experienced a 12 percent growth in population, according to the 2020 Census, and wants to strategically plan for emergency services, highway development and other public services.
“I am hopeful that some of the course material from university classes that focus on community development can provide some answers, guidelines or more information,” Supervisor Ray Feldman said.
In Polk County, leaders want to develop a unique identity and brand for the area that includes a logo, mission and vision statement, and community engagement tools.
“While we have the drive and intent to develop the identity and brand, we do not have the in-house marketing and development expertise to accomplish this goal,” General Government Director and Deputy County Administrator Chad Roberts said. “This program provides a unique opportunity for us to partner with UW-Madison in a cost-effective manner to develop this brand.”
Launched in 2016, UniverCity Year has already worked with 14 communities across the state. The program embodies the heart of the Wisconsin Idea, facilitating engagement between UW-Madison and Wisconsin communities to solve challenges facing local governments.
“We continue to see communities across Wisconsin eager to work with UW-Madison on addressing their most pressing challenges. This is a clear sign of the public value of UW-Madison to the entire state,” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said. “I also see it as a clear win for our students because they will be learning from residents, practitioners and community leaders about lessons that aren’t always written down in textbooks.”
In addition to Stoughton, the Town of Germantown and Polk County, UniverCity is working with Outagamie and Columbia counties. Also, in a unique collaboration, UniverCity is partnering with the City of Sun Prairie, the Towns of Deerfield and Cottage Grove, and the Friends of Koshkonong Creek to study and recommend upgrades to the creek.
Dave Muehl, owner and operator of Badger Farms event venue, sees value in working with UW-Madison students instead of a typical engineering firm and believes they will have the creativity to ensure Koshkonong Creek becomes a valuable asset to the community.
“Our hope is that the suggested improvements to the creek are cost effective, stand the test of time and improve the overall environment while reducing flood potential for the affected landowners,” Muehl said.
For the partnering communities, UniverCity Alliance can be an additional asset to meet goals during a time of limited resources.
“Everyone is stretched thin these days. The UniverCity Alliance program allows us to move forward on key project items with professors and students,” said Cheryl Fahrner, executive director of the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation.
Similarly, 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.”
After the projects are identified, UniverCity Year staff will match them with faculty members who are interested in incorporating the projects into their coursework. UniverCity Year also provides support to participating faculty by facilitating meetings with the community and providing funding opportunities.
Students will present their recommendations to the community for consideration once they are complete, however, the partnership does not end there. UniverCity Year staff will continue working with the communities to evaluate the feasibility of student recommendation, improvement projects and report on outcomes.
“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 Stoughton’s Gary Becker.