On an overcast October afternoon, nine masked students in the inaugural Civics Lab class boarded the Capital Metro 801 Northbound bus next to campus. 

“How many of y’all have ridden the bus before?” their professor, David Thomason, asked after they’d taken their seats. 

“I’ve taken public transportation in other cities I’ve visited, but not in Austin,” Psychology major Amie Calhoun ’21 said, and several in the group nodded. “I have a car, and I don’t live near a bus stop, so it’s never been on my radar.”

Every few blocks, the bus stopped to accept a cluster of passengers. From her window seat, Political Science major Desi Tsacalis ’24 took in the colorful storefronts of South Congress Avenue as she imagined where the passengers were going — some to dinner with friends at a fancy downtown restaurant, some to work in that restaurant’s kitchen. The bus was an equalizer. Everyone traveled at the same pace and could observe the same scenery. 

On South First Street, the bus slowed as it crossed the river and passed the jagged copper-and-glass façade of City Hall. A block later, the group disembarked and headed east. Soon, pop-up tents flanked by red sail-shaped flags announced their destination: an outdoor open house with the leaders of Project Connect, a major public transportation expansion whose initial $7.1 billion investment Austin voters had approved in November 2020.

Thomason and the students dispersed among the representatives of the Austin Transit Partnership, the organization overseeing Project Connect’s implementation. Calhoun found Jackie Nirenberg, the partnership’s director of community engagement and involvement, whom the class had interviewed on Zoom two weeks earlier. “We want to advocate for the interests of college students in this plan, today and in the long term,” Calhoun explained. Nirenberg waved over the project’s CEO and chief architect. 

Tsacalis studied a map of the planned light rail network, a web of colored lines splayed across the city. Nicole (Seligman) Taliaferro ’12, a community engagement coordinator for Capital Metro, approached, extending her hand. “The youth population of Austin will determine whether public transportation is widely accepted,” Taliaferro said, “and your generation cares so much about sustainability. Y’all are in a really important position to influence this.”

An hour later, the group crowded onto the packed 801 Southbound. Back on campus, they debriefed. The buses had been efficient, on time, and surprisingly full. The knowledge the class gained from their first Austin bus ride was worth any anxiety they’d felt boarding or finding their seats. There had to be a way to use the experience to reframe other car drivers’ perception of public transit. 

If you haven’t done it before, riding the bus can be a bit daunting,” Political Science major Niko Smith ’23 later reflected. “This class forces people out of their comfort zone, because we’re going out and experiencing the real world. It’s not just theory.

The Civics Lab was designed to help students from all majors move their understanding of public policy beyond theory and into the real world. Thomason, an associate professor of Political Science, patterned the course after his Legislative Process and Lobbying class, in which students choose a bill to support and visit the Capitol to advocate for its passage. The Civics Lab also teaches students how to research an issue, then nudges them off campus to interact with decision makers. Thomason acts as a guide, but students choose the topics and set their own goals. The course is an example of the university’s emphasis on experiential learning, in which students conduct research and solve problems in the community, not just the classroom.

“This is a project-based, practical class, and it’s a lab, not a lecture,” Thomason told his 20 students. “You’ll learn civics by doing it.”

An illustration features a person's face on a blue bus.

Civics, Thomason explained, is “any social or political interaction where you’re seeking avenues for influencing and enhancing the public good. I follow the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument about ‘self-interest, rightly understood,’ meaning, you can’t understand what other people think unless you interact with lots of people in different ways. And if you do that, you realize it’s in your own self-interest to address social problems.”

“Doing civics” is different from studying government. It combines the cerebral work of researching an issue with the action of showing up at the right meetings and offering well-informed policy solutions. Unlike politics, which can connote divisive partisan posturing, civics is data- and solution-driven and ultimately nonpartisan. 

“In civics, it doesn’t matter what your political label is,” said Political Science major and Civics Lab student Michael Baumgartner ’22. “It’s about returning to the roots of the role of the informed citizen in a democracy.”

In the second week, the class chose a topic — college students and public transportation — and decided to focus on transit access and affordability. Teams would tackle the issue from different angles: government relations; outreach; podcast; marketing and social media; and research. They learned that the proposition that funds Project Connect passed with 58% of the vote. They studied the Project Connect website and discovered that the Orange Line, one of the first two light-rail lines to be built over the next decade, would run right by campus. But detailed planning for that rail stop was years in the future. For now, the class decided to advocate for St. Edward’s to offer free bus passes for students. 

But would students use them? To understand their classmates’ transportation habits, the group distributed a survey that asked, “If you live off campus, how do you get to school?” and “How often do you use public transportation?” Meanwhile, the government relations team identified key staff at Capital Metro and Project Connect and through Thomason invited Eric Bustos ’12, the government affairs adviser for Capital Metro and the Austin Transit Partnership, to visit class via Zoom. After explaining the Project Connect plans for expanded bus and rail service, Bustos focused on St. Edward’s. “It might be worth looking at whether the university could promote riding the bus and eventually light rail to reduce demand for parking,” he offered. 

Tsacalis shared the survey data with him. “Right now, 60% of students who’ve responded to our survey are driving to school,” she said. “And 80% say that if public transit were more accessible and affordable, they would use it.”

Bustos followed that up with an invitation to the Project Connect open house and suggested they meet the project planners.

After the open house and their eye-opening bus ride, the groups decided on their next steps. Baumgartner and Tsacalis met with Liz Johnson, St. Edward’s director of government and community relations, to pitch the class’s ideas: free bus passes for students, staff and faculty; electric scooter docking stations on campus; and partnering with Project Connect to develop the former El Gallo property, which St. Edward’s now owns, as the Orange Line stop. Though the latter two ideas would take longer than a semester to evaluate, the students learned that the university already offers fully subsidized bus passes for campus residents and discounted ones for commuters and employees.

Tsacalis realized that the class’s “access and affordability” argument was missing the mark when it came to their fellow Hilltoppers. Her friends outside the Civics Lab seemed to think, like she had, that public transit was great — for other people. Their own cars were too convenient. If St. Edward’s students already had a bus stop at the edge of campus and free bus passes, what would motivate them to try transit instead of driving?

Taliaferro’s words about young people and sustainability echoed in Tsacalis’ head. In the next class, she suggested the Civics Lab shift gears and focus on the environment. 

“We need to emphasize the connection between transit and sustainability,” she explained. “The best way to engage young people in public transit is to give them a reason to care. Being a young person, knowing what we value, it’s pretty clear to me that that reason is the environment.”

“Why don’t we do an op-ed?” Thomason suggested. “We could submit it to Hilltop Views and the Austin American-Statesman.”

On Sunday, Nov. 14, Tsacalis opened the Statesman’s website to find her first published opinion piece, written in collaboration with Thomason: “Transportation choices matter in the fight against climate change.” Skimming the screen, her eyes landed on their call to action: “The Civics Lab is asking you to rethink your relationship with transportation in terms of its efficiency, affordability and sustainability. We think it’s time for Austinites to get serious about our own transportation choices.”

The piece announced the lab’s last major initiative for the semester — Topper Transit Week, a challenge to their fellow students: Use public transit at least once during the last week of November. Post a photo of yourself on the bus, your bike, or your scooter and hashtag it #toppertransit. Come to the first home basketball game, and we’ll hold a drawing at halftime. 

The class’s marketing and social media team created a logo for the scoreboard screen, promoted the event on Instagram and Twitter, and printed stickers — showing Topper riding a bike — to distribute on campus. Tsacalis and others solicited donations of prizes from nearby businesses. 

When class met the Wednesday of Topper Transit Week, a slightly bedraggled Thomason reported on his personal transit challenge. Monday, he’d ridden his bike to the bus stop, then taken two buses to campus. But Wednesday, when he returned from lunch on Congress Avenue on an electric scooter, he discovered that the campus perimeter was geofenced to exclude scooters, and the meter in the scooter app wouldn’t stop running. By the time he returned the scooter to the street, the 1-mile ride had cost $13.

“It was painful,” Thomason said. “But sometimes that’s part of the process of learning. Maybe tomorrow night at the basketball game we show up and only three people are there. That’s OK. This is a lab, and it’s an experiment, and we’re learning. And a lot of things happen when you just show up.”

An illustration featuring a detail of the tip of a pen.

Two weeks later, over last-day-of-class pizza, the students reflected on their experiment. Topper Transit Night at the basketball game had been a qualified success; as the Civics Lab representatives had set up their table outside the gym, they realized that only a handful of people had used the hashtag to enter the drawing. So they took Thomason’s advice and pivoted, asking fans to sign in as they arrived and giving a quick pitch about trying transit. At halftime, they went to the floor and drew the names as the Civics Lab logo flashed on the scoreboard. It was over quickly — but now they had names and email addresses for 100 people, Political Science major Alex Diaz ’22 pointed out. Next semester’s Civics Lab — which the students and Thomason agreed should continue working on transit — could use the list to launch an e-newsletter.

But first, Thomason wanted honest feedback. What, he asked, had they learned, and what could he do better next time?

“I learned how to send formal emails and ask for meetings,” offered Smith. “How to network effectively — like figuring out who to talk to at a reception and how to join the conversation without interrupting. And that you have to change your pitch depending on who you’re talking to, like people at Capital Metro versus students here.”

Thomason nodded. “Know your audience,” he said. “It’s not just an idea that’s important but how you sell it.”

Pedro Smaniotto Aizza ’22 suggested the Civics Lab needed a recognizable visual identity: “It was obvious that having a strong brand and using it consistently can take the project a lot farther,” he said. “We saw that it was hard to get students on board if they didn’t know what Civics Lab was. I’m a Graphic Design major, and this experience of creating a brand for Civics Lab is exactly what I want to do in my career.”

Calhoun noted that she’d gotten a second interview with a City Council member’s office because of the civic engagement activities on her resume. 

Now that Thomason had piloted the Civics Lab, he would teach it again in the spring. He posed a question: Would anyone be interested in registering for the course again and acting as a mentor for the new group of students?

Several people raised their hands, including Baumgartner, Smith and Tsacalis. 

“What’s missing sometimes in Political Science is creativity,” Tsacalis said. “Normally we talk about policy … but the best political movements and the best social change always happen when people are creative. This course helped me realize because of how many ideas we came up with that creativity is a larger part of political science than we normally talk about.

“In a democracy, it’s important that people feel they have the power to change things,” she continued. “That’s the whole purpose of this class: to show that you can dedicate a semester and meet once a week and actually achieve your goals.”

Story by Robyn Ross. Photography by Chelsea Purgahn. Illustrations by Angus Greig.