The Battelle Center at Ohio State prepares students for the intersection of STEM and public policy

Preparing today’s students to join tomorrow’s high-tech workforce is the aim of STEM educators. But some teachers might not realize that they should go beyond presenting the “book smarts” of science, technology, engineering and math in their classroom. The successful STEM employees of the future also might need “workplace smarts” such as collaboration, communication and networking skills. That’s where the Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy at Ohio State University comes in. The Battelle Center, on OSU’s Columbus campus, offers students from many majors the chance to tackle complex problems by working together in a team setting, where they can hone those workplace smarts. To find out more about the center’s offerings, we contacted Dr. Elizabeth K. Newton, director of the Battelle Center, to give us the details:

Q: Tell us about the Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy: When and why was it created, and what is its aim?

Headshot of Elizabeth K. Newton
Director Elizabeth K. Newton on the mission of the Battelle Center inside the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University

A: The Battelle Center started in 2006 with a gift from Battelle Memorial Institute to the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, with the goal of educating university students about the intersection of the technical fields (STEM disciplines) and the public policy world. The Battelle Center as it is today launched a little over 2 ½ years ago to bring a practical focus to the original goal.

The Battelle Center aims to give students a better understanding of science and engineering-heavy industries as a whole, industries that naturally have public policy dimensions due to their potential to impact our lives. Many students graduate with a solid knowledge of their majors but do not understand the broader context in which science and engineering occur.

The Battelle Center wants to equip all students with this context, as well as essential professional skills, such as networking, communication, collaboration and conflict resolution, so they can work across disciplines and domains to be effective problem-solvers and innovators.

Q: How does your background in government and science influence your work in leading the Battelle Center?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of societies to innovate and reshape the conditions of their existence. When governments invest in science and engineering, it can be transformational.

My first degrees were in government, international relations and political science, and I focused on transformational pushes such as the U.S. space program and other high-tech endeavors. Later, I decided to work not just in space policy but also in space science, so I returned to school to earn a Ph.D. in solar astrophysics.

After working as a space scientist, I found myself back on the policy front eventually! Because I’m “fluent” in the cultures of both science and public policy, I can act like a translational bridge between the two so that we really can benefit by combining the strengths of both. I want students to see the necessity of interdisciplinary work, because that is where the wicked problems of our time will be solved.

On a personal note, I have frequently found myself in the minority, or even the only woman, in these domains. It does not have to be as challenging today as it was for me, so I strive to create a sense of belonging and community for every student, but especially people of color and women.

Q: What kind of student would benefit from doing work at the center, and what, in general, are the classes/programs/events that the center offers to students?

A: Every student, undergraduate or graduate, can benefit from some aspect of what we do. It doesn’t matter what their backgrounds are or what they are majoring in, the Battelle Center supports students’ developing their courage, curiosity and sense of purpose.

We foster student communities of practice for certain tech-heavy industries, but we also offer training to all students in professional skills workshops and push students’ world-views in our book and film salons.

We also teach a class called Rapid Innovation for Public Interest so that students from any background can wrestle with real-world problems on interdisciplinary teams.

Q: What are the specific challenges that students enrolled in the center will tackle in the upcoming semester? Will students take courses, meet for discussions, go on site visits, etc? Will students have contact with community/organizational/business partners?

A: Our Rapid Innovation for Public Interest course just started its fall semester. The students will be working on problems such as how to find lost satellites in space, how to coordinate drone swarms that are tracking toxic plumes and how to rejuvenate urban neighborhoods through creative zoning. Each of these challenges requires students from various colleges to come together and problem-solve.

Students working on these challenges are required to get out of the classroom and interview at least 100 professionals about the challenges to ensure their problem-solving products are desirable, technically feasible and viable in an economic sense. Field trips and site visits are transformational for students’ understanding.

We also work with students in various student organizations on campus that tackle STEM challenges including students who will be competing at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition and the Buckeye Space Launch Initiative. These student-led teams come to the Battelle Center for mentorship and a place where they can work on their projects.

Q: Tell us about the center’s SCOPE events: What are they, and how do they fit into a student’s program at the center?

A: To date, we have two Student Communities of Practice and Engagement, or SCOPEs. One is focused on the aerospace and aviation industry, the other on infectious disease management. We are planning to launch one in spring 2020 concerning sustainable energy.

SCOPEs are entirely voluntary. Students gather weekly to connect with practitioners in the field, grow their network, take advantage of opportunities to do research, feel a part of the community and learn about the industry’s contemporary issues and policy and economic context.

This year, a new aspect of our infectious disease SCOPE is a Grand Challenge where student teams problem-solve issues related to superbugs, from surveillance tracking of infection to quarantine procedures and more.

These SCOPEs help students feel part of a professional community before they graduate, and we provide a level of coaching and mentorship that helps them through inevitable rough spots in their progression from student to young professional.

Right now, students in our SCOPEs and other activities represent 11 different colleges and dozens of disciplines.

Q: Do you have programs aimed at professionals who might want to enhance their skills?

A: We are developing new graduate certificate programs that will further professionals’ development, specifically in the area of science and engineering for the public interest and problem-solving for national security.

Q: Tell us about the John Glenn Humanitarian Observatory: What is it, what are its goals and how does it aim to accomplish them?

A: The Humanitarian Observatory is a program where we train students in complex problem-solving, including bringing Earth observations and other geospatial data to bear on a public or humanitarian problem.

For example, one of our major projects entails creating an information dashboard that can be used by health-care workers who are contending with the latest Ebola crisis in Africa. It is being piloted now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this project, we brought together students, faculty and staff members from a variety of backgrounds to create an interactive, open-sourced map that helps track the spread of the Ebola virus and identify the regions most in need of humanitarian aid.

We want the Humanitarian Observatory to become a place where the right people, equipped with the right technology and right information, can create solutions for wicked problems and anticipate humanitarian needs.

Q: Are there any other aspects of the Battelle Center that you would like to share?

A: Interdisciplinary work, such as what we do, is hard because existing systems of educating and researching almost disincentivize it. But we’re keeping the faith!

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