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Engineering and Public Policy: Connections and Opportunities

View of Houghton's Agate Street, which is a mess of mud and rubble, after it was destroyed by the Father's Day Flood.

Houghton’s Agate Street after the Devastating 2018 Father’s Day Flood:

Just One of the Tough Repair Projects Tackled by Engineers

Remembering the Father’s Day Flood

On June 17, 2018, Houghton County experienced torrential rain, which some called a 1000-year event. Seven inches of rain fell in under nine hours. Roads were washed out. The Ripley neighborhood was decimated as a landslide tore downhill, wiping out peoples’ homes. The rain damaged over half of the 160 culverts on the Calumet-Hecla recreational trail. It flooded multiple homes and damaged yards. All in all, the Father’s Day Flood created 60 sinkholes and 150 road washouts. It left behind 42-million-dollar bill for road repair alone. Property damage is still being estimated.

Broken bridge floating in Hancock's  trail system, which was destroyed by the Father's Day flood. This image demonstrates the damage caused by raging waters.

Also destroyed was the Swedetown Gorge, the highlight of the Maasto-Hiihto trail system in Hancock, MI. The rain transformed its gentle stream into a raging river that uprooted trees and tossed boulders. Bridges collapsed, their wooden structures and concrete slabs jutting precariously out of the water. The trail on which people hike, ski, and bike suddenly became unnavigable.

But how to repair this trail? Where to get the money? There were public consultations. There was debate. Typically, people seek funding for recreational trail infrastructure projects through Michigan’s DNR grant programs. However, a lot of money was needed for the Swedetown Gorge Recovery Project. So engineers and project managers decided to take a different tactic. They went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Navigating Policies and Programs

A crucial step for project planners was consulting FEMA’s 217-page Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide. One goal: making the argument that the trail system was a public facility (park) eligible for substantial funding. According to Michael Markham (OHM Advisors), his engineering firm “collected information on all the damaged sites, estimated the cost of repairs, designed, and bid out the project.” The city filed applications and proposed budgets. Because the project took so long to approve, OHM had to collaborate with three separate city managers. Eventually, The Swedetown gorge project got the green flag in late Jan 2021.

As this example demonstrates, engineers waded through several policies at every stage of this project. In other words, public policy knowledge is not solely for those in government and political careers. It is also for engineers.

That is the argument that Dr. Adam Wellstead, director of the Online Certificate in Public Policy, made to the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering (CEGE). On October 4, 2022, Dr. Wellstead presented at the CEGE department meeting. There, he articulated the connections between public policy and environmental engineering.

Although there is a high demand for policy analysts, he noted that there is even a higher demand for engineering graduates with a policy background. For instance, both state and local governments as well as public policy consulting firms require engineers with public policy skills. In fact, whether they’re planning infrastructure, bridges, or water systems, CEG engineers regularly have to consider local, state, and federal policies. They must conduct risk assessments, consult with publics, and understand the policy process. They must frequently examine issues through a public management lens.

Pursuing Public Policy Online

The Department of Social Science‘s online public policy certificate can help fill the demand for engineers with policy experience. Consisting of three 7-week courses (The Policy Process, Public Management, and the Policy Cycle), this certificate equips graduates with the fundamental skills to work as public policy experts in several fields. Students can also complete it in only two semesters. Along with Dr. Wellstead, the program’s teaching team comprises four other experts with diverse public policy perspectives. They are Angie Carter, Associate Professor of Sociology; Mark Rouleau, Associate Professor; Carolin Sj√∂holm, Visiting Assistant Teaching Professor; and Shan Zhou, Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy.

Regardless of their background, students can add value to their graduate or undergraduate degrees with this certificate. They can tap into the strong demand for policy-related careers. In particular, this program especially appeals to Michigan Tech’s BS and MS students considering employment in government agencies.

Proposing Engineering and Public Policy Programs

With this online public policy certificate, MTU currently joins other respected schools who have similar programs, such as Arizona, Auburn, and Michigan State.

Other prestigious universities also offer engineering and public policy programs (Carnegie Mellon, Northeastern, Delaware). Using these as examples, Wellstead proposed developing a similar program at Michigan Tech. One possibile joint program with CEGE is the Accelerated Environment and Energy Policy MS degree plus Public Policy Certificate option. He also suggested existing programs that would complement public policy, such as the online certificates in water resources modeling, geospatial data science and technology, and structural engineering (hazard analysis). These stackable certificates would allow CEGE students to combine their specific expertise with public policy skills.

Considering Next Steps

At the end of his presentation, Dr. Wellstead answered questions, considered comments, and planned the next steps. Several faculty members brought up additional connections between public policy and CEGE. Others suggested courses for the online public policy certificate, such as program evaluation.

To further analyze program viability and gauge interest, Dr. Wellstead will continue researching comparable programs, meeting with students, and exploring the linkages between public policy and engineering. In doing so, Dr. Wellstead is helping to achieve three of goals of the Michigan Tech Global Campus: promoting online learning; offering in-demand knowledge and skills; and opening up new educational pathways to diverse learners.