Students Bridge Gap Between Engineering and Policy

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On a Tuesday night earlier this spring, mechanical engineering student Aaron Townsend presented his research on the electric grid and integration of intermittent generators to a room-full of student peers and researchers.

The students sat quietly and occasionally interjected with comments or questions on his research, to which Townsend offered explanations or clarifications during his nearly one-hour long presentation.

Daunting as it may have been to some, Townsend is getting the best practice that he can on how to distill and communicate his technical research findings so that they are interesting, appealing and – more importantly – understandable to an audience outside of engineers.

That is, after all, one of the mission’s of the Webber Energy Group, a research group that seeks to bridge the divide between policymakers, engineers and scientists on issues related to energy and the environment.

Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Michael Webber created the group four years ago in hopes of bringing the scientific and policy communities together, which, he said, often fail to successfully engage each other on important issues like energy.

Dr. Michael Webber.

Dr. Michael Webber

The consequence of this action is an incoherent mix of national energy policies that accidentally undermine each other, fail to achieve strategic aims or are impossible from the outset, according to his group.

“One of the missions of my group is to bridge that divide between the engineers who get solutions and the policymakers who need solutions but they speak different languages and have different approaches to problems,” Webber said. “We’re trying to step in and bring the rigors of engineering in a language that the general public and policymakers can understand, so that we can inform policy making that’s based on good science and good research.”

His group is made up mostly of master’s and Ph.D. engineering students, though it includes undergraduates and students studying business, public policy and geosciences. The multidisciplinary nature of the group means that students are exposed to new ways of looking at and approaching their research problems.

“Seeing the kinds of research happening in different fields and crosscutting between different fields not only informs our day-to-day research activities and approaches, but the team work, strategy and problem solving efforts that come from each other’s individual disciplines are things that we can bring to bear on all of our projects through that process of collaboration and discussion,” said Chioke Harris, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

The group holds weekly meetings where students can practice presenting their research, as Townsend did, or learn from guest speakers.

The group also hosts an annual symposium, in which potential employers, research partners and industry representatives are invited to attend and hear the students’ research presentations.

“This gives us a chance to get 40-50 guests in the room to listen to the students present, and it gives the students a chance to practice speaking in public and to test their research on a critical, intelligent, but friendly audience,” Webber said. “So students are presented in front of potential employers, potential employers are presented in front of students, and they get a chance to improve their research by having access to so many people who know so much.”

For more information about the group, visit the Webber Energy Group website.