Oct. 19-25, 2001
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Students help build public policy
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Students help build public policy

Engineering Students
Josie Pipkin
University interns in Washington this summer included (front row, from left) James Cuneo, graduate student Josh Krupnick and Corrie Clark, (back row, from left) Emmanuel Smadja, Nicola Palmer, Markus Weisner, Glen Michael, John Jesus, Ginger Moored, Leonard Woody and Stacey Benzel.

By Matt Kelly

How often do people think of engineers as architects of public policy?

U.Va. students of engineering and applied ethics got to step up to the plate this summer, joining 15 of their contemporaries from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Washington Summer Internship program, working at a variety of offices in Washington, D.C. Students had an opportunity for nine weeks to explore science and engineering policymaking at the national level through study and practical experience.

James Childress, director of the Institute for Practical Ethics, said it was valuable for his students to see what values are at work in making science and technology public policy.

Engineering faculty adviser Michael Gorman praised the program for offering students “substantive intellectual work,” such as writing government reports, and not restricting them to mundane tasks such as getting coffee for legislative staffers.

“One helped draft legislation on energy policy,” said Gorman, chair of the Division of Technology, Culture, and Communication at the Engineering School. “One worked on a report on de-mining technology and another wrote out a plan for a senator’s mail room.”

“The biggest project I did was author a paper on humanitarian de-mining technologies,” said fourth-year student Stacey Benzel. “I was tasked to determine which de-mining technology, if any, would be available in this presidential term. In addition, I did some work on energy efficiency, critical infrastructures and attended a lot of hearings and different conferences.”

Benzel said she was surprised that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy gave the interns as much autonomy as it did while working on land mine policy.

“They trusted we would do a good job and, overall, I think we proved them right,” Benzel said. “I learned more this summer about so many different things, and they were lessons that could never be taught in a classroom.”

“They did useful and meaningful work,” Gorman said. “It shows that if young people are talented and energetic, they will be put to work using their talent and their energy.”

The engineering school, is concerned about the social and ethical implications of technology, according to Gorman, especially in the TCC division. This experience gave students an opportunity to see how policy decisions are made.

“Engineers play a role in policy and their input could be valued,” Gorman said.

Childress noted that students could appreciate that values compete with each other in making some public policy. Glen Michael, a bioethics student who plans on attending medical school next year, said his experience as a health policy researcher for the Alliance for Health Reform will provide background for his work as a physician in the future.

The internships also exposed students to the political hurly-burly.

“Politics is certainly the name of the game in Washington,” said Leonard S. Woody III, who worked for Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). “Technology policy was not immune to this and was heavily influenced by politics. This was somewhat disillusioning, but very good information to know for the future.”

Gorman said several of the students have decided to write their theses on the same topics on which they worked during their internship, such as space tourism. These public policy exercises will be important, he said, even if the student works in the private sector. John Jesus, an international biomedical ethics student switched into a premed program after his internship, realizing that he could make his best impact as a physician.

Gorman and Childress said their efforts to join the intern program, which MIT has been doing for seven years, were aided by James Turner, chief counsel for the House of Representatives Democrats, who has a family member attending school at U.Va, and Scott Giles, a U.Va. alumnus who works on the Republican side of the House.

Gorman wants to use the first round of interns to help select those for next year. Benzel said she has already recommended the program to others and Woody described it as very rewarding. He said many of the same government offices have expressed interest in taking students in the future.

The interns were housed with MIT students at George Washington University, placing them within walking distance or a train ride of their jobs. It also gave the students an opportunity to compare notes with each other.

Gorman said surveys have been sent out to the participants, including those from MIT, to get feedback on the program. “We want to see if they thought it was a good experience,” Gorman said.


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