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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Task forces give students a chance at real-world policymaking

Before showing the next slide in her PowerPoint presentation, Rebecca Katz warned anyone with a weak stomach to turn away.

Several students gasped as the image of a child afflicted with smallpox appeared on the screen. Katz, a doctoral candidate in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs , swiftly clicked onto the next slide, resuming her discussion of the devastating history of chemical and biological weapons.

After the lights came back on, most of the 10 juniors in the Robertson Hall classroom remained wide-eyed. The photos of smallpox and anthrax victims had put a harrowing face on their semester-long mission: to develop a policy for the U.S. government on how to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"That was a great overview," Harold Feiveson, senior research policy analyst in the Wilson School, told the students as Katz packed away her laptop. "[It was] a little sobering, but very illuminating."

All Wilson School students are required to participate in policy task forces in each semester of their junior year. Hallmarks of the school's curriculum, the junior task forces challenge students to write individual papers on public policy issues ranging in scope from municipal to global, then pool their ideas in a group policy statement. Each task force's findings are presented to individuals, government agencies or other organizations that influence real-life policy issues.

This semester, Feiveson -- co-director of the Wilson School's Program on Science and Global Security -- led a group in examining how the United States should react to the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by other nations. For research, the students could start simply by watching television and witnessing the historic international showdown over Iraq's weapons program.

As Katz, who served as a graduate consultant for the task force, delivered her presentation to the group in late February, the United States was imploring the U.N. Security Council to declare that Saddam Hussein had missed his last chance to disarm. By early April, after the students finished their individual papers and began collaborating on their final policy, U.S.-led forces were moving into Baghdad, about to topple Hussein's regime.

"This was the only paper I've ever written in which the vast majority of material I've used wasn't from books," said Siddartha Gupta, who became the task force's expert on Iraq and weapons inspections.

The full story is available in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601

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