Dane County, UW–Madison campus connection creates ‘hands-on’ applied research opportunities

As a local delegation prepared to visit Dane County’s sister county in Kassel, Germany in June, a University of Wisconsin–Madison political science student made connections to make the trip a success.

Now, Pranav Krishnan, who will be a University of Wisconsin–Madison junior in Fall 2023, is helping the delegation debrief and outline next steps on potential economic development opportunities between Dane County and Germany’s Kassel County. This role balanced his interests in both international affairs and local government – a newer field of study for Krishnan.  

A headshot of Pranav Krishnan
Pranav Krishnan

“It was an area I never really experienced, and I thought it’d be a good way to understand how to translate what I’ve been learning in class into actual policy,” Krishnan said. 

Krishnan started working for Dane County as a policy analysis intern through UniverCity Alliance (UCA) – a network of community and campus partners working to improve local governments and foster innovation in local communities – and the Department of Political Science. The Dane County Board of Supervisors was a UniverCity Year partner from 2017-19, and starting in 2022, UCA has supported the county by pairing two students each semester to work on policy analysis projects. 

“UCA aims to be the front door to UW–Madison for all Wisconsin local governments, and we’re happy to continue connecting Dane County to university resources,” UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said. “It’s an exciting extension of our partnership that started through UCY in 2017. That partnership planted the seed that led to these policy analysis opportunities.” 

After a semester, Krishnan transitioned into a part-time job at the county to continue his work on researching opportunities for economic development organizations in Dane County and Kassel. 

“A lot of the commonalities we found were in the solar industry, because that’s something that they have been working on recently and trying to induce,” Krishnan said. “It’s also an emerging industry in Kassel.”

Because of this, Krishnan helped arrange meetings with a solar manufacturing company and solar researchers at the University of Kassel. 

County Board Chair Patrick Miles, District 34, and County Board Supervisor Chuck Erickson, District 23, reported a successful trip that “highlighted the potential opportunity for a working relationship with industry and the University of Wisconsin and University of Kassel.”

In addition to the sister county project, other topics that Dane County policy analysis interns have researched include a retrospective analysis of the county’s redistricting processes, teen mental health policy innovations, and innovations in providing services to rural elderly residents. 

“Through these projects, students have provided the County Board with valuable research, review and reporting on topics of importance to the Board,” Miles said. “This work will help as the County Board works on future initiatives with the goal of improving the lives of Dane County’s residents.

Students presented these projects to the Dane County Board of Supervisors and relevant committees. In particular, the project on teen mental health is pointing toward potential solutions.

“The data provided informed the Board that one area that can improve support for teens is improving the network of youth centers,” Miles said. 

Amy Gangl, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Political Science, said the policy analysis positions were well received by students and faced a competitive application process. 

“Students are always looking for hands-on opportunities and research, and this was applied research where you actually can feel like you are making a difference,” Gangl said. “The experience itself was attractive to people.”

Additionally, establishing relationships with Dane County staff, learning soft skills of collegiality, and creating a strong portfolio piece made the opportunity valuable. Gangl said the connection to a local county can be “eye-opening,” especially for students who are not from Wisconsin but are interested in local government. 

“It’s an incredibly valuable connection that I wish more students could take advantage of because the ability to engage in applied research in this way and engage with real policy problems on the ground and talk to the people who are working on them is invaluable for people who are interested in these issues, both from a policy perspective and just a general sort of political science perspective,” Gangl said. “These are problems that students are interested in studying and seeing them on the ground is amazing.”

The partnership will continue into the 2023-24 academic year with two additional policy analysis projects slated for Fall 2023. If you are interested in inquiring about the projects available, you can contact Gavin Luter, gavin@cows.org

—Abigail Becker