Ethan Rivera Leads Panel on Public Affairs Collaborations in STEM Education

The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Annual Conference was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October. The conference aims to convey the importance of public service education. With 310 member institutions, NASPAA brings together an array of educators and researchers that make a lasting impact on the nature of public affairs and higher education.

Ethan Rivera, the Student Programming Lead for the Ohio State Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, convened a panel on the ways public affairs and STEM education can connect to create a richer educational experience. Ethan was joined by Shannon Portillo, Director and Professor in the Watts College of Public Service at Arizona State University and Jackie Speedy, Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Melon University.

Three people, standing and smiling in a conference room.
The panelists from left to right: Ethan Rivera of Ohio State, Shannon Portillo of Arizona State, and Jackie Speedy of Carnegie Melon.

The panel was described as:

This panel will discuss the ways in which public affairs (PA) programs can collaborate across their institutions to inspire students in STEM disciplines to engage in public service and public policy through their professional work. Such systematic efforts to increase exposure and impact of public affairs education help diversify the pool of students interested in and prepared to serve the public interest. Panelists representing varied roles within their broader university community, will present overviews of their specific STEM engagement strategies (e.g., co-curricular programming, cross-listed experiential learning courses) and discuss connections between their activities and broader NASPAA goals and workforce needs.

During the panel, it was clear early that each of the universities represented are accomplishing the goal of collaborating across STEM and public affairs disciplines in unique ways. Some programs are building curricular options where policy students learn more about data analytics and how to utilize science and in policy and public affairs spaces. Others are creating partnerships with industry to create opportunities for students of different disciplines to gain practical experiences that bring them together and provide new skills.

“There are different institutional barriers to collaborations with STEM units at every university, but there is still a lot we can learn from each other when we have the opportunity to be in conversation,” Shannon Portillo noted as a takeaway from the panel.

Providing the skills, no matter the barriers, is an important part of these collaborations. "Data is ubiquitous, so it is imperative to train public servants to utilize data to inform decision making and to create a more efficient, effective, and equitable government," Jackie Speedy said after the panel.

“We need to excite the next generation of public sector leaders to want to serve the public good!" - Jackie Speedy, Carnegie Melon University.

A heavy emphasis was placed on the amount of interdisciplinary work is the nature of public service. This is especially important when imagining the ways those trained in public affairs connect with the latest technologies. To this point, Shannon said, “Students who are traditional public service students, will spend their careers collaborating with folks with a STEM background. Building these collaborations into our academic programs through curriculum and co-curriculars is vital for the future of our programs.”

The panel brought several questions regarding the logistics of these collaborations as well as how to get students and decision makers to buy into these opportunities. One of the big things discussed in the panel was the need for marketing at the university level to find the students, faculty, and staff that want to be a part of these opportunities. The panelists each gave their strategies and gave the audience ideas for how they might do the same at their universities.

“It was incredible to see other educators trying to fill the space between our public affairs students and our engineering and science students. We are uniquely positioned as universities and public affairs colleges to be the glue that allows our students to grow and make an impact on society,” Ethan commented when looking back at the panel.

In the end, Jackie may have had the most insightful thought about what these collaborations aim to do and serves as a mission statement for the panel and the work being done at Ohio State, Carnegie Melon, and Arizona State. “We need to excite the next generation of public sector leaders to want to serve the public good!"