Campus interdisciplinary program brings innovative perspective to engineering doctoral students

Ariel Hayat/Staff

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A new campus program aims to provide students with interdisciplinary training to tailor their innovations to serve developing countries.

This fall, the department of civil and environmental engineering is administering an interdisciplinary program for doctoral students that will prepare them to implement and evaluate technological solutions to problems faced by low-income economies. The program — Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering — allows students to work with departments including business, economics and public health. The emphasis is open to students who are researching technology’s application toward addressing the needs of people living in poverty.

“There are no real problems that are just economics problems or mechanical engineering problems or psychology problems,” said David Levine, a professor at the Haas School of Business who teaches one of the program’s main courses. “Real problems about safe water or education or whatever else are always vaster than any single discipline.”

The program is a way to equip students with skills from social fields such as working with communities to tailor technology to their specific needs, according to Temina Madon, executive director of the Center for Effective Global Action, which is supporting the new emphasis.

Through the program, which requires two core courses and three electives, students will receive an emphasis in development engineering, which is the equivalent of a Ph.D. minor.

The program is a collaboration among the Blum Center for Developing Economies and a host of other campus departments, including the Haas School of Business and the College of Natural Resources. Part of the program’s funding comes from a $20 million donation in 2012 to UC Berkeley from the U.S. Agency for International Development to address pressing global issues.

William Tarpeh, a third-year environmental engineering doctoral student who is enrolled in the program, said the designated emphasis allows him to combine his interests in engineering and development and to learn how to develop technology with perspectives from myriad disciplines.

“It’s so easy in (the) development sector to go in thinking you’re the first one (with an idea), but you rarely are,” Tarpeh said. “(The program lets us) cross-pollinate between projects … enriching the final product academically and practically.”

Alice Agogino, chair of the faculty group in development engineering, hopes to extend the program to masters students and provide seed funding for student-led projects in the future.

“There’s a science behind it, and we want to put this work at the same level as other advanced work we perform at the university,” Agogino said. “We interpret development broadly to be people having freedoms to make choices in their lives  … Most problems will not be solved mostly by technology, but technology can be part of the answer to a lot of them.”

Contact Alex Barreira and Chloee Weiner at [email protected].