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School For Wonks

Engineering schools are slowly responding to the need for grads with both technical and public policy know-how.


Ask any engineering student in the country whether modern engineering practice runs up against an increasing number of societal and policy problems, and the answer you'll most likely get is a resounding “yes.” Ask those same students whether their education—particularly at the undergraduate level—provides them with the skills needed to analyze and solve those problems at a public-policy level, and you'll see some head scratching.

There are a number of excellent graduate-degree programs integrating engineering and public policy, including those at George Washington University, Princeton, Georgia Tech, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford. Penn State and Cornell offer a large number of undergraduate courses and programs in science, technology, and society.

Only one university in the country, Carnegie Mellon, offers a formal undergraduate program that deals with engineering's role in politics. Begun in 1971, the school's Engineering and Public Policy program has graduated almost 500 students. These graduates have the analytical skills imparted by the traditional engineering fields coupled with those from economics and social and policy analysis. Trained to solve problems at the intersection of technology and society, these engineers will meet environmental, computer, and communication problems from a unique perspective.
But now McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., has introduced a new course called The Engineer's Role in Public Policy. The idea is to help prepare undergraduate engineering students for the variety of societal problems awaiting them in their jobs.

Most of McNeese's engineering graduates find employment in the nearby petrochemical industry—an industry particularly impacted by the proliferation of safety and environmental regulations. Until now, few engineering graduates in this country have been trained to understand and influence the regulations, laws, and policies that support or subvert work in the field.

Control of the rapidly changing landscape of engineering has been left in the hands of public-policy makers who have limited understanding of new technology and its implications. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for instance, creates policy dictating electricity supply and delivery without a single engineer on its staff.

Fred Denny, associate professor of electrical engineering at McNeese, and Richard Robinson, associate professor of chemical engineering, have created a one-year course drawing from the disciplines of chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering to prepare graduates for the technical analysis required to shape public policy. The first year of the course discussed the engineer's role in public policy and was a step in the right direction in teaching future engineers that it's not enough to work in a bubble, even if you do your job well.

“Graduate courses emphasize critical-thinking skills and analysis of issues,” says Denny. “We're using a broad brush to introduce some of those concepts—things they'll need to be successful engineers in a larger, global context.”

Using guest speakers, lectures, slide presentations, videotapes, and Web presentations, students obtain information about hot public-policy issues affecting their fields. Working in teams, students learn about case studies featuring business ethics, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, electric and magnetic field effects, superfund legislation, nuclear power, and deregulation/restructuring in major U.S. industries.

One of the introductory components of the course was an overview of the U.S. government's history, including the principles of the Founding Fathers. Understanding how the Senate and House of Representatives work, the nuances of federal budgeting, and how bills become laws constitute the framework of the students' education in public policy. Denny says he was surprised at how little students remembered from high school. “I taught civics 101 for the first few weeks,” he notes dryly.

The students watched C-Span and other television programs covering debates between candidates for the mid-term elections of 2002, debating the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches. Denny also showed them videotapes and Web sites outlining the role of lobbyists.

While public policy remains the focus of their course, Denny and Robinson emphasize that corporate policies for private businesses are often developed using the same techniques. “The ability to make your point convincingly and the ability to put together a strategy on an issue, whether it's a public policy issue or a business issue, are a similar skill set,'' Denny says. “Even if you end up never working in the public policy arena, the skills are useful.”

One of the primary goals of the course, says Denny, was to increase engineering students' understanding of how public policies are developed, as well as how those policies will affect their future work activities.


Being able to work not only as individuals but as members of multidisciplinary teams, understand professional and ethical responsibilities, understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context, and have a knowledge of contemporary issues are not only criteria for ABET, Denny says, but are critical to the future of engineering.

Denny says his course is designed to overcome the tendency of engineering education to be one-dimensional. The course calls upon students to not only learn to solve problems and use math and science, but to connect their work to broader societal concerns. The students are discovering that becoming active at the state, local, or federal level in policy decisions can provide professional rewards as well as improve the quality of life in their society. “Some issues, like environmental issues, are prominent in all three levels of government,” Denny says. “Our society is becoming more technologically challenged and more environmentally sophisticated, and engineers have to stay current in what's happening on all of those levels.”
As issues become more complex, Denny says, engineers have to prepare themselves for a more far-reaching work environment, incorporating knowledge of many fields into their area. “One example is the global warming issue, which involves the whole planet,” Denny says. That point was driven home to the class in their discussions of not only the science involved but the international accords, different countries' positions, and the United States' role. “If you're an engineer working in one of the energy fields or for an auto company, understanding the terminology and the landscape is invaluable,” he explains.

The course at McNeese draws on Denny's experience with the Edison Electric Institute, where he served as a consultant for governmental affairs activities. Denny says he quickly realized that “as an engineer you deal with public policy all the time, whether you know it or not,” by either trying to comply with laws and regulations or trying to influence a company's strategy for public-policy development.

Denny says adding a public-policy dimension to his teaching when he became an associate professor eight years ago gave his electrical engineering course a little zip. “I would bring in bits and pieces of energy policy, and the students were really interested,'' Denny recalls. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought it could be a course in and of itself, dealing with the public-policy process and how to influence the process in things the engineering organizations do.''

Students' communication skills are honed in role playing– becoming a spokesperson for an industry faced with both friendly and opposing audiences on specific issues. In one exercise on global warming, half the class represented the interests of an environmental group such as the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth and the other General Motors.

“We worked across the whole public-policy spectrum,” Denny says. “We developed a media campaign and a message for the public, decided how to lobby Congress, and put together an in-depth corporate policy, complete with a communications plan to take to managers within the company.''

Denny challenged students to come up with a strategy for dealing with a town meeting and a conference committee in Congress. Both the style of presentation and the substance of the presentation were important. Videotapes of Walter Cronkite, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy offered insights into different styles of presentation. “One of the things that I learned early in that job I had in public policy was that unsupported opinions were worthless,'' Denny says. “You need to be able to support everything you say.''

McNeese is particularly well suited for the exploration of public-policy issues because the school is located in the heart of the energy industry. ``Louisiana has had the heavy influence of oil and gas affecting policy decisions over the years,'' Denny says. ``I don't think a lot of people realize to what extent special-interest groups affect public policy, and that's kind of an eye-opener.”

Focusing on deregulation of the electric industry and the affect of cases such as the Enron scandal on the future of the electric industry, class discussions about ethics and special-interest groups have been lively. “One of our goals is to make the course interdisciplinary,” Denny says. “What I'd like to see is all four of the disciplines take a team-teaching approach and students from all four disciplines take this course. This time it was mostly electrical engineers, but I'd like to see it broadened,” he says, pointing out that, traditionally, civil engineers have been most active in the public-policy arena.

About 25 junior- and senior-year students took the course in its first year. Denny says the feedback has been phenomenal, with students expressing a change in perspective and expectations that would warm any professor's heart. “I love the power industry, and it just didn't occur to me that policies were being determined by people who knew nothing about what they're talking about,” says Kelly Hoffstauir, an electrical engineering graduate in December of this year. Hoffstauir says she loves Lake Charles and would like to find work there, but has talked with Denny about public-policy job opportunities in Washington, D.C. “I never even knew that was a possibility,” she says. “It made me realize that there's more to engineering than just going to a plant in Lake Charles.”

Amy Hensarling, an electrical engineering senior from Woodville, Texas, says the course prompted her to think seriously about applying her technical skills to public needs. “If we engineers don't step up to the plate, it could damage or hurt others in the community,” she says. “I've even thought of running for public office, and I would never have thought of that before.”

Including a public-policy related course as part of an undergraduate engineering curriculum has been, for Denny and McNeese, a good beginning.


Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
She can be reached at



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