PORTAGE | A dozen graduate students at Indiana University Northwest have teamed up with regional planners to learn more about the role of public participation in policy making.
Dr. Kalim Shah, assistant professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at IUN, and 12 of his graduate students partnered with the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission during the spring semester.
Shah started at IUN last semester and spoke with Chancellor William Lowe and President Michael McRobbie about how his role could help meet the university's goal of increasing public service throughout the region.
Shah reached out to Kathy Luther, NIRPC's environmental director, to get a sense of the key players in local environmental policy.
"Immediately, when I started teaching this environmental policy course, I said (to Luther) you have several large, long-term projects in the area and you are seeking greater public participation and response. How can we help?" Shah said.
Shah decided all of the 12 students in his class would be required to attend NIRPC committee meetings and report back on them to the class. Shah then tied in the meeting agendas with classroom lessons.
"I don't think a lot of the students here at IUN understand how they can be involved in actual, day-to-day planning of projects in their communities," he said. "The Illiana Highway, for example, will impact the region, them and their families for years and years to come. They can be part of that process."
Shah said he has seen a culture change in many of his students since they started attending the meetings.
"Now I'm getting the distinct impression that more of the students are more vocally engaged in the process," he said. "At least three of the students mentioned they will continue to attend these meetings now that the class has ended."
David Kujawa, 25, of Griffith was one of those students. Kujawa asked Shah if he could serve as a representative for IUN on the Deep River Watershed planning committee.
"I told him no, go for yourself, represent your interests, your community," Shah said.
Kujawa, an anthropology major, said he learned a lot from the process.
"I kind of knew that the meetings took place because a family friend was a representative for my town but I didn't know how the process took place or what it was like," Kujawa said. "I definitely want to try to stay more involved. It opened up a whole new policy path I never considered."
The students are writing a report on how NIRPC can improve on public outreach, which will be reviewed by the commission's staff.
"NIRPC is really pleased to have the participation of local universities and students in our projects and committees," Luther said. "The NIRPC Board is currently in the process of evaluating our committee structure for effectiveness and transparency. The results of the IUN project are timely to inform this process and we look forward to receiving their input."
Joe Exl, senior water resources planner for NIRPC, agreed.
"Any report on how we can do a better job on outreach and public involvement will be beneficial," Exl said. "The fact that these students weren't aware of the opportunities for involvement emphasizes even more that I need to figure out a more effective way of engaging the general public."
Shaw said he hopes to offer the one-semester course annually based on the success of the first class.