Member Spotlight: California Polytechnic State University

Blog Post
June 8, 2021

Long before public interest technology was a recognized term, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) was offering students a comprehensive technical education that went beyond hard skills via its interdisciplinary studies and a laser-like focus on experiential learning.

“It’s in the water here,” says Dr. Matthew Harsh of the school’s “Learn by Doing” pedagogy. Harsh, who is Associate Professor and head of the Center for Expressive Technologies, serves as Cal Poly’s PIT-UN designee.

Learn by Doing has been Cal Poly’s mantra since it was founded in 1901. Originally focused on agriculture and engineering studies, the school now offers more than 60 baccalaureate degrees in technical fields and the humanities. Harsh says Cal Poly takes interdisciplinary studies and experiential learning seriously, making it a natural fit for training in what we now call public interest technology.

“Our job is to train people for the future workforce of California, and so many of those jobs are going to be public interest technology jobs,” says Harsh. “If you’re studying engineering and computer science, or even agriculture or architecture here... you’re still getting that interdisciplinary content.”

One Focus, Many Offerings

The school’s research centers and institutes offer students opportunities to engage with public interest work and get involved in faculty research. In addition, there are two major strategic research initiatives focused on training the next generation of tech workers. Transforming Access to Cybersecurity in California (TrACC) is looking at the need for more cybersecurity workers in state and local government, as well as the nonprofit sector, and predicting serious demand for public interest technologists who can work with communities and organizations that lack technical expertise. The Ethical Tech @ Cal Poly initiative is similarly interested in training students for the growing number of opportunities in “ethical technology,” both in the public and private sector, as governments and tech companies increasingly seek technologists with a background in ethics to craft policy, evaluate new products, and more.

Ethical Tech’s work also extends into curriculum and is supported by a podcast, Technically Human, led by Dr. Deb Donig. In October, PIT UNiverse profiled Dr. Donig and the podcast, which features interviews with activists, researchers, industry leaders, and more on “what it means to be human in the age of tech.”

Harsh himself directs the Center for Expressive Technologies (CET), which studies the interaction of technology with creativity and the arts. Last year, students affiliated with the Center organized a workshop for local elementary school students to learn about robotic programming through a storytelling exercise—programming robots to complete certain tasks to save the students’ hometown.

In a similar vein, Cal Poly’s 2020 Network Challenge grant explores the use of virtual reality (VR) to enhance workplace trainings around diversity and inclusion, sexual harassment, and more. Faculty are writing screenplays with branching narratives that will be brought to life in VR, allowing employees to practice responding to scenarios and seeing the results of their actions play out.

Cal Poly isn’t abandoning traditional technology work, either. The school offers a diverse slate of curriculum centered on Science and Technology Studies, including four cross-disciplinary minors that allow students to pursue learning on ethics, public policy, and more. There is also a degree offering in Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies, a hybrid B.S. that combines coursework in physics and math with writing, history, culture, and ethics, among other topics.

In (PIT) for the Long Term

Student interest in PIT is high, says Harsh. While the term might be new, Cal Poly’s cross-disciplinary approach and long standing work in Science and Technology Studies mean PIT is, “in the DNA.” Harsh adds that Dr. Donig’s course in ethical technology is frequently oversubscribed, and an event and speaker series organized through the Ethical Tech project and Center for Expressive Technology saw high student turnout. Events included speakers on racial bias in police tech, a fireside chat with Facebook critic Yael Eisenstat, a screening of the film Coded Bias with director Shalini Kantayya, and a career panel with Cal Poly grads working in public interest roles.

Looking ahead, Harsh highlights a number of developments on the horizon for PIT at Cal Poly. The Center for Expressive Technologies is getting a new building on campus, slated to open in January 2022, that will enable CET to host more events and increase community engagement around creative tech. The university is also expanding course offerings around tech policy, ethical tech, and other PIT-related topics.

Another major milestone lies ahead in the long term, says Harsh. Cal Poly is exploring the creation of a new college for data science, which would have a particular focus on training students for public interest roles.

On the collaboration front, Harsh says Cal Poly is keen on building partnerships with other PIT-UN member institutions in California, given the importance of California schools training the tech workforce. Bringing PIT projects and curriculum to institutions outside the network, especially in the vast Cal State and University of California systems, is another goal.

In the immediate term, it’s Network Challenge grant season, which Harsh calls it his “favorite time of year as PIT designee.” He’s currently talking with faculty members about their research and introducing them to public interest technology, often for the first time under the PIT heading.

“There are a lot of conversations where people say, ‘Oh yeah! This is what I do,’” Harsh says with a laugh. “But I think [the Network Challenge] is one of the most brilliant things that the Network does, not just because it funds great research, but it really provides an opportunity to promote the network. To promote the idea of public interest technology. That’s exciting.”