The University of Massachusetts Amherst

School of Public Policy Hosts Sustainability Competition

Student competitors in the NASPAA Batten beta test

Forty-seven students from across the UMass Amherst campus spent a day tackling the crucial question of how to create sustainable cities during a recent beta test of the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition, hosted by the School of Public Policy.

In the annual international competition, sponsored by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, students use real-world data to solve hypothetical but realistic problems through policy development. The theme of the 2020 competition is sustainable cities, with a focus on transportation.

The UMass beta competition took place on January 25 in the John W. Olver Design Building. Teams of students worked to develop sustainable transportation policies for fictitious cities based on real US communities, taking into consideration budget restrictions, public health, land use, community engagement, and other factors. After several simulation rounds, during which players roleplayed as city managers, transportation commissioners, city treasurers, and other municipal leadership positions, the teams wrote policy memos and created presentations on their proposals.

At the end of the day, a panel of expert judges selected the winning team, comprising James Hokonya, a recent Isenberg School of Management graduate who will enter the School of Public Policy’s Master of Public Policy and Administration program this fall; Allyson Brauns, a senior anthropology major; Alyssa Ryan, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering; and Justin Taylor, a master’s student in sustainability science. The team’s policies focused on reducing dependency on carbon dioxide-emitting vehicles by investing in electric buses and creating alternatives such as more rail service, bike lanes, and pedestrian walkways, among other strategies.

Hokonya is studying public policy because he’s interested in addressing the problems of poverty and inadequate healthcare, such as he saw growing up in his native Zimbabwe. “These issues really touch my heart,” he said. “It is sad to see so many kids without a good future because of poverty. … I think policy is at the top of the tools that can reduce a lot of poverty and health issues.” The NASPAA-Batten competition, Hokonya said, allowed him to explore ways that good transportation policy can help achieve those goals; developing new transit systems creates jobs, for instance, while improved public transportation makes it easier for people to access healthcare and employment.

Ryan’s research focuses on transportation engineering, with a particular interest in transportation safety. “I’m interested in how transportation engineering turns into policy,” she said. The competition allowed her to bridge those two interests and to connect with students in the policy field, she said. Ryan and Hokonya both noted that their team’s members were all motivated and positive, working together well under stressful circumstances. “It was very intense,” Ryan said, “but it was exciting and fun.”

The UMass Amherst competition was the first-ever beta test of the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition. The UMass winners received medals and were invited to travel to official NASPAA-Batten competition sites to serve as student mentors. Those competitions, to be held at eight universities in the US and abroad, will take place in late February and early March.

The volunteer judges for the UMass beta competition were Professor Camille Barchers of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning; Professor Michael Knodler of Civil and Environmental Engineering, director of the UMass Transportation Center; Tess Perrone Poe of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, who received her master’s in regional planning from UMass Amherst; and Professor Marta Vicarelli of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics.

The NASPAA-Batten simulations are developed at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming. Past competitions have focused on migration, pandemics, and food insecurity.

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy prepares students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

Photos by Ben Barnhart (top and middle) and Mikayla Coffeen-Vandeven (bottom)

Contact: Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy


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