Engineer David Lee wins funding for public interest technology program

David Lee
Assistant Professor of Computational Media David Lee leads the Tech4Good Lab at the Baskin School of Engineering.

David Lee, assistant professor of computational media at UC Santa Cruz, has received funding through the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) for a program to provide community-engaged experiential learning for students. The program involves a scalable community consultancy delivering public interest technology to help local organizations, and it includes both a formal course and co-curricular opportunities for students.

Lee, who leads the Tech4Good Lab at UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering, will build on a successful pilot program he led last spring with 130 students in his Business Strategy and Information Systems class. Working with the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center, the class delivered a large strategic assessment and design exploration consulting project.

“We organized the whole class around one big project, blending together aspects of business strategy and human-centered design to develop a deep understanding of the partner organization’s needs and strategic direction,” Lee said.

Students surveyed more than 100 volunteers, staff, and clients of the nonprofit arts organization, conducted more than 50 interviews, analyzed the results, and brainstormed ideas. They explored dozens of concepts to help meet the center’s needs, of which several were selected for further development.

With the PIT-UN grant, a new iteration of the course will include a co-curricular component open to more students than the roughly 150 in the formal course.

“We can now build on what we’ve learned to establish something that works in a sustainable way, including a co-curricular component so that students who might not have time to take the course can be involved for a few hours a week and still accomplish something in the real world,” Lee said. “Usually, it’s hard to do project-based courses with large numbers of students, so one aspect of this is creating opportunities for more students.”

To organize the students’ work on such a large, complex project, Lee uses a novel approach based on his research on the use of “micro-role hierarchies” in experiential learning. The idea is to break the project down into discrete chunks (micro-roles), while tracking individual progress to ensure that each student is proceeding toward his or her learning goal.

“It’s organized like a workplace, so students get to experience what it’s like to carry out a large project within an organization,” Lee explained. “The goal is to help them learn not just the skills for analyzing a problem, but also the skills needed to collaborate, lead teams, and organize their work.”

The partner organization, meanwhile, benefits from a more comprehensive assessment and consultation than they would get from a smaller student project or internship.

“We want it to be valuable for the community partner and valuable for the students,” Lee said. “An important part of that is to set a foundation of deep engagement with the partners to understand the organization and their needs. The ideas generated from this can lead to additional collaborations in the future.”

Lee’s Business Strategy and Information Systems course attracts a wide range of students. Most are in the engineering school or the business management economics program, but Lee said he also has many students from psychology and other social sciences programs.

“It’s designed to engage anyone interested in how to design technology for the public interest and do it in a way that is grounded in a deep understanding of organizational needs and business strategy,” he said.

The PIT-UN grant is important for more than the funding it provides, Lee said. “Being a part of this PIT-UN community of people doing the same kind of thing, developing novel experiential learning experiences around technology for the public interest, will be really impactful.”

The Public Interest Technology University Network is a partnership that fosters collaboration between universities and colleges committed to building the nascent field of public interest technology and growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists.