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Ernestine Fu Headshot

Why Public Service Needs Engineers and Scientists

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"Why would an engineer write a book on public service?" This was the one question I was asked most frequently when I started to write Civic Work, Civic Lessons. My answer? Engineers are problem solvers. We should be thinking about how we can change the world.

What problems can engineers, scientists, and mathematicians solve? Here's my personal list, using engineers as examples, since that is what I am training to be:

  • Chemical engineers can solve water and sanitation problems in the Middle East. We need to improve desalinization in order to alleviate water shortages.
  • Civil engineers can build efficient and low-cost homes for the homeless in Latin America.
  • Electrical engineers can enable even remote villagers in Africa to be connected by new modes of wireless broadband communication.
  • Mechanical engineers can design new products such as low-cost lighting needed by impoverished people in Southeast Asia.
  • Environmental engineers can design lower-cost renewable energy sources to help solve our global energy crisis.

I started working on this book my sophomore year as an engineering student at Stanford University. Thomas Ehrlich, a public-service veteran, former dean of Stanford Law School, and currently a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, wanted to write a book on how and why people of all ages, particularly young people, should engage in public service.

Professor Ehrlich asked me to be his co-author, knowing that I was active in nonprofit and public-service activities. In high school, for example, I started a nonprofit organization that brought music to centers for seniors and disabled people.

In writing the recently published book, I have come to believe that an engineering and science education is particularly good preparation for public service. By educating students as socially-responsible engineers and scientists, we not only serve the public interest but also strengthen their engineering skills. Their skills are increasingly important in today's world, particularly in deriving insights from big data sets. Thoughtful experimentation is required to understand underlying factors that drive complete societal problems. Below are two examples of why engineers can solve problems and what scientists have done in the past.

Solving Problems Within Constraints

Engineers and scientists can work within constraints, in environments of uncertainty, and are able to identify and overcome hurdles quickly and efficiently. Their academic studies enable them to handle challenges and come up with the right answers. They are able to leverage a wide range of tools and techniques to find those answers. These skills are key to solving many of the major national and global issues we face today.

Computer scientist Sam King and his organization Code the Change is one example. Sam organizes "hackathons," where programmers help nonprofits develop technical solutions to their problems. One of Sam's projects is a smart-phone app that enables users to record the severity of crop disease in Uganda. Because of this program, workers in Uganda now can use their phones to take photos of flies that spread the African cassava mosaic virus. The smartphone application then analyzes the whiteflies on the underside of a leaf and based on the number of bugs, displays which cassava leaves are diseased. Farmers then harvest only healthy leaves.

Finding and Analyzing Data for Optimal Solutions

Engineers and scientists are good at finding and analyzing data in ways that lead to successful solutions to social problems. They are able to find the data they need, and when that data does not exist, they can design experiments to generate new data. They can analyze and interpret the data to measure results and thereby meet societal needs most effectively.

Elaine Albertson, an earth systems scientist, has devoted herself to addressing social issues. Elaine worked as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with local farmers in Tucson through the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The Food Bank hosts farmers markets for low-income and vulnerable families to make healthy organic food available to all members of the Tucson community, not just to those who can afford it.

Elaine analyzed the impact farmers markets had on nutrition and food access. She conducted surveys and completed analyses that helped develop best practices for farmers and food banks. Elaine says her science classes on topics such as soil science, ecology, and chemistry were invaluable because they "taught me how to deal with numbers, think analytically and critically. A science degree gives you an analytical framework that you don't get in other fields. That framework is critical in analyzing social change."

The work of Sam and Elaine show how students with strong S.T.E.M. backgrounds can engage effectively in public service.

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