Inside Washington

Inside Washington

Turner, Jim

Undergraduates gain public policy experience through internships in the nation’s capital.

WHAT DO THE offices of several leading senators, the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Bank have in common? (1) All influence what engineers work on, how they do it, and even how much they are paid. (2) All typically are run by lawyers or those with M.B.A.’s who don’t always understand how engineers work or think. (3) And all sing the praises of the talented engineering students that MIT and the University of Virginia (UVa) are sending them each summer, free of charge.

Five years ago, former UVa engineering dean Richard Miksad joined forces with MIT’s ongoing schoolwide summer intern program, directed by Tobie Weiner and political science professor Charles Stewart, to design a program that would provide undergraduates with firsthand policy experience in Washington, D.C. Miksad, Weiner, and Stewart recognized the role engineers can and should play in assisting legislators to better understand the technological aspects of public policy. Engineers ignore public policy at their peril. Those making government decisions affecting engineering use the best available information, but if engineers don’t help them understand how the world of engineering really works, imperfect solutions can result.

Now, all around Washington,offices are opening their doors to engineering students. Last summer at the White House, the Office of Science and Technology Policy engaged an undergraduate intern from UVa, while an undergraduate engineer from MIT worked at its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The first intern to work in the Office of the Science Adviser at the State Department was from UVa’s engineering school, while the first engineering student to work on patent legislation at the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee came from MIT. Once these offices experience the talent, they usually ask for more students.

And this is just half the story. At UVa, Washington leaders, either individually or as panel participants, talk to our students about their agencies and their jobs. They also explain how they went from being undergraduates interested in technology to running an agency or advising a president, about how lobbying works or how the press gets technical information, or whatever other topics interest the students. This summer’s speaker series started with Supreme Court Justice Breyer and ended at the CIA. Visits to the White House, senators and representatives, agency heads and their top engineers, as well as Washington, D.C.’s private sector leaders in science and technology policy took place along the way. The students selected who and where they wanted to visit and the program did its best to accommodate them. This process invariably gets students thinking in new strategic ways about the choices they face as they finish their undergraduate study. Both MIT and UVa require related coursework, lectures, and papers before and after the summer internships.

These programs are changing lives, and the students know it. They have won Marshall Scholarships and other prestigious grants; two have run for office. Some pursue policy work in Washington, D.C; others do not. Yet regardless of where our students head, they will understand the intersection of technology and policy better than their peers. Hopefully, students from other engineering schools soon will also move from the edges of public policy debates to interaction with its most important participants.

Jim Turner is a technology policy specialist for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, and he serves on the Dean’s Advisory Committee for UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He helps each summer with the MIT/UVA intern program.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Mar 2005

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