University of Vermont

University Communications

Legislature as Laboratory

Service-learning courses give students inside access to state government

Junior Aaron Weisinger-Flood takes notes from the balcony of the House of Representatives during a session of the Vermont State Legislature. (Photos: Andy Duback)

It’s mid-morning on March 30 at the Vermont Statehouse, and senior Rachel Peck and first-year student Emily von Weise are listening to experts provide testimony to the Vermont House Judiciary Committee on the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. They take notes and occasionally step outside into the Capitol hallway to talk with legislators and lobbyists.

They look and act like reporters covering the Vermont State Legislature, which was exactly the intention of their instructor Richard Watts, research assistant professor in Community Development and Applied Economics, when he designed the new service-learning course "Media-Action-Policy." Their assignment: post a 300-word article to the Vermont Cynic student newspaper website within 48 hours. Late submissions are not accepted nor are corrections after it has been posted.

“The goal of the course is for students to better understand the relationship between media, activism and public policy while using the Vermont State Legislature as a learning laboratory,” says Watts, a former reporter and legislative aide. “The students are loving the accessible, transparent nature of the Vermont Legislature and the experience of seeing it up close and personal.”

Experiencing life at the Statehouse

Peck and von Weise have become quite knowledgeable on the marijuana legalization issue. They have listended to dozens of experts, including UVM alumnus Chuck Ross '78, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets; experts from Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal; doctors, psychologists and others specialists.

Outside the committee room, opinions flow from a steady stream of politicos, ranging from the mayor of Rutland, who says legalization is bad for local cities and towns, to a former Vermont attorney general who is in favor of it, to Kevin Ellis, a lobbyist for Ellis Mills Public Affairs, which is representing an anti-marijuana legalization group.

Ellis has agreed to show students what a lobbyist does for a living. A former reporter, he emphasizes the importance of knowing the background of legislators. “There’s a difference between a conservative from Milton and a liberal from Burlington,” he says, ”but you don’t always know how they will vote.” Peck, who posted an article about Ellis the day before, says he knows everything about everyone in the legislature.

“I’m surprised how open people are to listening to both sides of the issue and hearing about what could happen if it was legalized,” says von Weise, who, days later, was one of the first to report on a vote by the House Judiciary Committee to overhaul the marijuana bill and remove legalization. “It’s more complicated than most people think,” adds Peck. “There’s only so much you can learn in the classroom, so I’m enjoying the opportunity to expand beyond it and learn about these issues up close.”

Student research helps shape state laws

Media-Action-Policy isn't the only UVM class that brings students into the heart of state government. Since 1998, students in the Vermont Legislative Research Service course have provided non-partisan policy research reports to Vermont state legislators -- information that directly impacts state policy. Legislators, who are invited to request the type of research they need, have come to rely on the service and the full reports, memos or links to key resources it produces for them.  

VLRS students, who spend four hours a week at the Statehouse, conduct research under the supervision of Professor Jack Gierzynski, course creator, and fellow political science professors Robert Bartlett and Eileen Burgin. In 2016 alone, students have completed multiple reports on marijuana legalization and traffic safety, Medicaid practices following the Affordable Care Act, forest management and more.

“Their research was eye-opening both in detail and breadth and right on point for the question we asked,” said Burlington Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, who along with Rep. Valerie Stuart, asked for research on post-secondary education enrollment. “We had quite a lot of national information but nothing unique to the state. Valerie and I will be sharing their work with our Commerce Committee, and it will be our jumping off point when we work with the House Education Committee redesigning how technical education is delivered."

Legislative mentors as teachers 

Now in its ninth year, the Charlie Ross Environmental Public Service Practicum, taught by Clare Ginger, associate professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, is yet another UVM service-learning course that interfaces with the legislature. With a focus on environmental and energy issues, students in the class spend time with mentors at the Statehouse, where they attend committee hearings, floor debates and caucus meetings. They write memos, work on constituent communications, and engage in policy discussions -- work that leads up to policy recommendations in a final research paper and policy prospectus.

“I don’t believe there is any other place in the U.S. where students can engage so freely, openly and comfortably with state lawmakers,” says senior Brock Gibian, who took the seminar last year when he ran for the Burlington City Council. "It has instilled in me a strong sense of public service and civic engagement," adding that he hopes to pursue graduate work and a career that effects positive change in the world. "It has made me realize that public policy is the greatest driver of change."

Outside of the marble halls of the Statehouse, students in Ginger's class get to engage in less formal settings with legislators and government officials: over dinner on Monday nights. Former students of the seminar also make appearances to talk about their professional experiences and coach current students on their future careers. 

“I took the Charlie Ross Practicum my sophomore year, and it changed the way I looked at environmental policy,” writes Carson Casey, who now works for Vermont solar company SunCommon. “The practicum was a weekly seminar with some of the most influential people in the state. It was during these seminars, I began to realize the impact one person’s voice could have, especially here in Vermont.”