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Students Take Environmental Solutions to Congress

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April 6, 2010 Masako Chen (C'11) and three of her classmates in her Shaping National Science Policy seminar are all set to lobby nearly a dozen congressional members who specialize in transportation, energy and bicycle use.

"We're getting the wheels turning for city bike-sharing programs across the country," said Chen, whose Spokes in the City team is one of the student groups in the seminar offered through Georgetown's Science in the Public Interest (SPI) program.

The seminar is taught by Georgetown's Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy and SPI founder Francis Slakey and biology lecturer Karen Wayland.

Throughout the semester, professors and students delve deeper into navigating the political system by hearing from congressional science staff, science journalists, lobbyists and pollsters. The seminar concludes with an examination of five case studies in science advocacy, linking students with industry and community leaders.

Lobbying for Legislation

Students work on one environmental project throughout the semester, with their grade partly based on their success with legislative change.

"SPI student groups have had their ideas voted on by Congress and signed into law," Slakey explained.

In the seven years since Slakey began SPI, three bills have been signed into law at his students' behest. One supports green buildings on university campuses, another grants loan forgiveness for nursing students and the third made national labs hubs for science teacher training.

"No other university offers this project-based approach that allows students to directly engage with the government and industry on critical global sustainability issues," the professor said.

Crafting Policy

The student teams in this semester's seminar class have each identified a policy issue, researched the science behind it and crafted a policy solution.

Chen's team, for instance, seeks $5 million in seed money to start city bicycle sharing programs on 20 college campuses across the country.

Another team wants to help Baltimore prepare for the predicted increase of vector-borne diseases from climate change by lobbying city officials to impose fines on property owners whose sites are ideal for mosquito breeding.

"It is absolutely essential that the Baltimore City Council take immediate precautions to prepare their city for this impending public health crisis," said Stefan Gramp (SFS'10).

Just a Beginning

Slakey and Wayland are amazed by the students' progress.

"Two months ago, these students knew virtually nothing about politics and science policy," Slakey said. "Now, in less than a semester, they have all drafted legislative proposals and have held meetings with prominent staff in Congress and city government – and they're just beginning."

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