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SPA Graduate Students Polish Research Skills in First-Ever Capstone Competition

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A research project that analyzed K-12 public school funding formulas recently won the first-ever poster competition this spring sponsored by the Master of Public Administration program in the AU School of Public Affairs.

The poster was designed by Meheret Woldeyohannes, Danielle Carey, and Destani Jameson, all MPA students who participated in the Public Administration Capstone (PUAD 610) before graduating in May. Their work was selected from 13 team entries (49 students) across three capstone classes taught by SPA Professor Jocelyn Johnston and Associate Professor Anna Amirkhanyan.

The faculty judges were Assistant Professor Nathan Favero, Assistant Professor Carla Flink, Professor Howard McCurdy, and Professor Barbara Romzek.

The contest was established this spring to promote teamwork, showcase the outstanding research being done in the department, and provide students with the experience of conducting research.
“Students submit deliverables all semester — outlines, research plans, and bibliographies,” Johnston said. “The poster at the end of the semester gets them to crystallize their project into a small document and helps them focus on what’s most important.”

Johnston and Amirkhanyan said being able to communicate research and work in a group are valuable skills in the workplace. The capstone project gives students a chance to do qualitative research, make career contacts, and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.

“There is a strong emphasis in our program to linking theory that they study to current events and the world of practice,” said Amirkhanyan. “There were a lot of very interesting posters that highlighted cutting-edge issues in society that made people stop in the hallways and look.”

The runner-up award was given to a poster on cybersecurity policy by Govind Kilambi, ChaLita Tillman, and Danielle Mitchell. Other topics included paid family leave, harassment in the workplace, hurricane emergency response, and government policies to combat the opioid crisis.

Reading news stories about Baltimore students suffering in freezing classrooms prompted Woldeyohannes to examine inequity in K-12 school funding.

“This is a perplexing question that a lot of people are trying to resolve,” said Woldeyohannes, who does policy research at an education advocacy nonprofit and interviewed several school officials for the project. “It was awesome to get all that insight, gather it, analyze it, and figure out recommendations. The accountability and transparency piece is key.”

“It was a challenge to visually display all their information — which varied widely by state — on a poster,” said fellow teammate Destani Jameson. They decided on a text-heavy, but clear approach, which forced the team, all of whom had full-time jobs, to work collaboratively.

“My grad school experience at AU was probably the best years of my life,” said Jameson, who works at an IT consulting firm in Washington. “A lot of the courses centered on leadership teams and organization. I got to unpack who I was and who I wanted to be.”