Through the leadership of Christopher Yoo, Penn Law professor and founding director of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition, the University of Pennsylvania has joined the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN). PIT-UN is “a partnership that fosters collaboration between universities and colleges committed to building the field of public interest technology and growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists.” The Penn PIT-UN partnership aims to create a hub for Penn faculty, researchers, and students who are working at the intersection of technology, policy, civic engagement, and the interests of the public sphere to come together to share ideas and collaborate.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of how new technology impacts the general public says Yoo. He cites both the ongoing concern over election tampering and the recent debate around law enforcement’s use of crowdsourced genetic testing as emblematic of how technology has become integral to problems related to privacy and the right to vote.
Less obvious, however, Yoo says is how to integrate training in ethics, public policy, and civic responsibility into a STEM education to ensure that technological innovation serves the public good. “Academic disciplines have historically been siloed,” he says. “Particularly, STEM studies have been singularly focused on technical topics.” There has been a growing recognition that this myopic focus in training does a disservice to society in a number of ways, Yoo explains.
Yoo says STEM experts have a unique perspective on what technology means in modern society, and trained specialists have the potential to contribute to the solving of complex problems. Furthermore, the career path for students who want to take a more general approach to their training and use their skills for consulting or policy making ventures are less well defined. Integrating public service with STEM education not only prepares technologists to grapple with the social ramifications of the next revolutionary innovation; it encourages students to explore opportunities to put their expertise to work in the public sector.
Under the direction from the Provost’s Office, Penn PIT-UN has found a home within the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program, where integrating service and civic engagement are embraced as key components of a well-balanced education. “The major challenges facing our world are cross-disciplinary. Penn is strongly committed to solutions that bring together multiple areas and make a tangible impact on the future,” says Provost Wendell Pritchett. “We are proud that the PIT-UN initiative will work with our landmark Paideia Program to bring together technology and civic engagement, educating the next generations of leaders to better understand how technology affects our society, from ethics and law to research and public policy.”
The timing of Penn PIT-UN and the launch of the SNF Paideia program is fortuitous, agrees Yoo, seeing a need for students to be more civically engaged while having the tools to integrate a sense of civic responsibility into their technical training.
Together with Michael Delli Carpini, faculty director of the SNF Paideia Program, Yoo has formed a steering committee comprised of faculty across the University and two student representatives. The committee is looking at ways to introduce topics such as ethics, design for public good, and social impact into existing classes, as well as developing new courses dedicated to public interest technology.
Juniors Kelsey Stanton and Sophie Roling are the two student representatives for Penn PIT-UN. They have formed a new student club, PIT@Penn. The student group will offer both networking opportunities for undergraduate students interested in the intersection of STEM and public service as well as host career talks to promote alternative professional opportunities for those looking to make public interest technology a lifelong vocation. Penn PIT-UN and the affiliated student group will undertake strategic initiatives to advance the field of public interest technology within the Penn community as well as the larger PIT-UN network.