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A new course engages engineering students in the dilemmas of Washington.

Run through even a short list of major issues facing America — global warming, energy independence, better delivery of healthcare, national security in an era of global terrorism — and one thing becomes quickly evident: Solving each of them will require new or improved technologies. Each will also force Washington policymakers to make tough choices between rival technologies and competing interests when figuring out which are most deserving of taxpayer support or government incentives.
Yet most folks making those big decisions don’t have backgrounds in science or engineering.

That’s a pity, says Margaret Bailey, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She thinks the country would be better off if more engineers gravitated toward public service and had a bigger say in deciding which technologies deserved more government support. But, she admits, many engineers have a jaundiced view of public policymaking.

Engineers “often incorrectly see policymaking as an irrational process driven solely by ignorance and political influence,” wrote Bailey and Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy and engineering, in an op-ed piece for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Engineers “often incorrectly see policymaking as an irrational process.”

– Margaret Bailey and Ron Hira, Rochester Institute of Technology

How do you alter such ingrained perceptions? Their solution was to design an elective undergraduate class: Engineering and Public Policy, which debuted at RIT in the spring 2008 semester. Its goal? To help engineering students gain an appreciation of why policymaking is important and how it’s an area where engineers’ skills as problem-solvers could serve them, and the country, well. They wanted students to learn that even the most emotive issues can be examined logically, an approach that should appeal to quantitative-minded engineers. A second goal of the course was to give non-engineering liberal arts students a better understanding of some of the science and technology involved in issues like global warming. And they wanted all the students to gain a strong grasp of how tech policy is made. “We wanted them to be able to intelligently talk about the process,” Bailey says.

Designing any course from scratch is a big challenge. But in this case, Bailey and Hira, along with James Winebrake, a professor of public policy, faced the task of engaging engineering students who might be predisposed to view the topic with skepticism. Luckily, Bailey says, her colleagues are old hands at teaching policy and are quite familiar with science policy courses and programs elsewhere. “They drew a lot on their knowledge of previous programs.”

The three professors decided that the bulk of the class should include three projects, with the students divided into teams to work on case studies. Says Bailey: “We wanted to engage the students in a meaningful way in class, so it was not just us talking.” Moreover, Hira explains, while engineers are essentially problem-solvers, policy issues can present them with problems of a type they’re not used to. “In policy,” he says, “there is no one right answer,” and you’ve got to take into account competing interests. “That was the primary driver behind having it case-based,” notes Hira, adding that it was also important that it didn’t come across as an “intro to policy course” that could turn off engineering students. They also selected teams that were multidisciplinary, comprising engineering and nonengineering students. That turned out to be a wise move, because the engineering students were able to help their liberal arts teammates understand some of the knottier science and math involved, while the public-policy students were more familiar with scenario-writing.

The first two weeks of the 10-week course were lecture-based and included assignments that would give students a taste of policymaking fundamentals. Week one delved into the role of engineers in public policy and was very much a history lesson. Students learned, for example, that because early land-grant colleges were often associated closely with local businesses, American engineers have always been tightly aligned with industry and haven’t been encouraged to become public servants, as they have been in other Western countries, like France. Week two gave students an overview of how the process works. Erica Wissolik, a lobbyist for IEEE, was brought in as a guest lecturer to offer a real-world depiction of lobbying. One assignment required the students to pick a major company with an engineering-heavy workforce then determine how much it spent on lobbying and what its top three issues were.

Memo to: Rep. X

Next came the projects, which directed the students to advise members of Congress on alternative-fuel vehicles; investigate shortages in America’s engineering workforce; and complete scenario-writing, in the form of a report for a power company.

The key to all three projects was a process called multi-attribute decision making, which requires weighing several factors — costs, legal and regulatory issues, public acceptance, industry needs, the current state of the technology — then ranking various possible outcomes.

In the case of the alternative-fuel car, students had to consider a number of possible options — electric motors, hydrogen fuel cells, and biodiesel — then report which type of vehicle looked like the best bet for weaning Americans off gas-powered cars in the medium term, 15 to 20 years from now. In the second project, the students had to determine if there truly is an engineering shortage. In the third, each team had to pick a type of power plant, say, nuclear or natural gas, and advise the company how to react if Congress mandated a sharp cutback in carbon emissions within a few years. All three reports had to be strongly data-based and free of subjectivity. “No report could get away with saying, ‘We feel,’” Bailey notes.

Alexandra Johnson, a third-year mechanical engineering student, very much appreciated the project-based approach, saying it helped bring the issues to life. “The learning was greatly enriched, since we were actually trying to apply some basic policymaking tools to real-world situations.”

The instructors were pleased with how things went, but they are already making changes. There’s a good chance they’ll reduce the number of projects from three to two, because the research required for each is quite intense. They also plan to occasionally freshen the topics of the case studies, to keep up with emerging issues. This year, Hira says, his project will look at the offshoring of engineering work rather than on shortages in the engineering workforce. “It’s important to keep things contemporary,” he says.

While the course is an elective for most RIT engineering students, the school also recently introduced a five-year program that allows students to earn a mechanical engineering B.S. and public policy master’s — and for those students, the course is required. Bailey doesn’t see the need to require all engineering students to take the course, but she expects to incorporate some of its policy-driven issues into her thermodynamics classes.

The nine students who took the course during its maiden run — four of whom were engineers — indicated they enjoyed it. All said they would recommend it to others. “The student surveys came back very positive,” Bailey reports. Because of that feedback, as well as an article in the campus newspaper, Bailey and her colleagues expect that viral marketing will kick in, and the enrollment will grow to 20 to 25 students this spring.

They’re also tracking student reaction and assessing whether course objectives were met, and they plan to author a scholarly paper about the course.

Student Alexandra Johnson didn’t have a negative view of policymaking before joining the class, but she admits to ill-formed notions — vague leftovers of ideas picked up in high school civics classes.

That’s not the case now. “I definitely have a greater appreciation of what lawmakers attempt to do on a daily basis and see the need for more technically literate people in that area.” If hers is a typical reaction, then Professors Bailey, Hira, and Winebrake are on their way to grooming members of the next generation of Washington policymakers.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom. .




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