New Graduate Certificate Program Provides STEM-H Students with Policy Training

This image stops the word STEP in all caps and also Science, Technology, and Engineering in Policy

What do you get when you cross science students with public policy? A “step” towards a better future!

STEP—Science, Technology, and Engineering in Policy—is the name of a new graduate certificate program that launched this past fall. The STEP program is aimed towards science, technology, engineering, math, and health (STEM-H) graduate students with a primary goal of developing and strengthening STEM-H students’ understanding of policy processes and how to merge scientific or engineering knowledge with public policy reasoning. Public policy is a critical focus of the Policy Destination Area, the program that designed STEP.

The Policy Destination Area (DA) is a branch of Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries initiative and aims to promote a better understanding of policy processes to undergraduate and graduate students. The DA encourages students to enhance their understanding of policy issues that intersect multiple disciplines. Each DA has foci in research, networking, and curriculum. The Policy DA team, including Dr. Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program at Virginia Tech, decided to focus primarily on graduate students and created this new graduate certificate program.

Schenk, one of the major driving forces behind the STEP program, explained, “With the STEP program we’re focusing on students that are not our typical students. We’re focusing on students that are coming from engineering, sciences, technical disciplines.”

Schenk stressed the importance of STEM-H graduate students gaining competencies around engaging with stakeholders in policy processes.

“They go into careers in government or careers in the private sector or careers in academia,” he explained, which generally have intersecting disciplines such as STEM-H and public policy.

Coming from a background in both collaborative governance and environmental policy and planning, Schenk is familiar with the challenges of the disciplines.

“Those are both fields where there is a lot of need to work across the science and policy divide,” he said.

Schenk said that he was encouraged to create the STEP program by national trends in science fields focusing on convergence—bringing disciplines together—along with positive interactions with folks at Virginia Tech who just “get it” and understand the importance of that convergence.

Creating the STEP program “has been an evolutionary process for me,” he said.

The STEP program puts science in the context of public policy and has five main foci, including how policy is made; values, ethics, and interests in policy making; collaborative engagement in policy making; communicating with stakeholders; and integrating scientific and technical information into policy.

Across these five foci, participants can learn how policy is made, implemented, and evaluated; analyze differing ethical values and how they are considered in policy making; practice engaging with stakeholders to create outcomes that are widely accepted; work with a variety of tools to effectively communicate scientific and technical information to differing audience members; and develop skills in providing data analysis that decision-makers or stakeholders use to arrive at better outcomes.

These five foci are touched on in all the courses the STEP program offers. The 12-credit-hour graduate certificate has 3 prescribed courses that all students must take, and 1 elective course to complete the certificate. Communicating Science (GRAD 5144) is a recommended external course for students completing the STEP certificate.

Although the STEP program is being offered as a graduate certificate, Schenk noted that it is also an array of classes that he hopes students will consider taking even if they do not plan to complete the certificate.

Schenk hopes that in the future this program will expand “to the next big frontier, Northern Virginia, and potentially create a mid-career type program that’s used for executive training or professional development.” Until then, his main focus is on starting up the program and getting a good set of graduate students from various disciplines across Virginia Tech.

By Amelia Gay, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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