Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Poverty & Practice Experiences were cancelled this summer. However, the Blum Center created the GPP Summer Study, taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak with 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about.

Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

The signature element of the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice undergraduate minor is a “practice experience” for students to connect the theory and practice of poverty action. Students select to work with nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, social movements, or community projects that focus on various dimensions of poverty action—from community health and food security to economic justice and grassroots political power, in the U.S. and abroad. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. Students have been forced to cancel their summer 2020 practice experiences, and seniors have questioned their ability to finish the minor. As one student wrote, “My PE in Ghana was cancelled and since I am a senior I am unable to reschedule my PE abroad to next summer.”

To address this problem, the Blum Center created an online offering for students to engage in deep learning and to allow for mindset shifts. GPP Summer Study taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak supported 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about. Problems pursued by the students included:

  • How might we address rising health disparities among low-income communities of color during the pandemic?
  • How might we reduce rates of disease in the northern region of Peru?
  • How might we expand educational technology access for young children?

Throughout the summer, GPP students leveraged toolkits from design and systems thinking to understand how to make change in a complex problem space. The first challenge was to determine what problem to tackle. Using a Ladder of Abstraction (Fig. 1), students thought critically about the problem space entailed and why it mattered. This helped them to see the problem space from multiple perspectives. They used “journey mapping” to understand, for example, the experience of an individual navigating the healthcare system during COVID-19. And they were challenged to map the system in which their problem exists—charting political, historic, economic, and social forces within specific communities. 

The students also engaged in introspection exercises to apply the same innovation process to themselves. “Students are grappling with really hard problems and questions in their life: Do I return to school during a pandemic? What are my job prospects amidst a pending global recession?” said Dzombak. “The same tools that can help a student discern a global development challenge can be used to help navigate ambiguity in their own life.” 

Dzombak said she structured the course so that students updated each other on their projects during each session. She also gave them time to connect about the complexity of being a student during a global pandemic. Asynchronous videos and resources allowed students to go deeper into their projects as time allowed. 

Said one student, “The Global Poverty & Practice Summer Study gave me a tool set to break down an issue and figure out ways I could begin to implement the changes I want seen.” A second shared: “It made me realize that GPP and my practice experience actually deal with real aspects of the world that need to be examined and not merely be seen as a ‘minor’ or a ‘practice.’”

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.

Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”

Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective. 

Alex Diaz, Head of Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid at Google.org, lectured to students on disaster prevention, response, and recovery, focusing on the roles of technology and governance.

The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?

The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.

Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”

Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”

Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.

Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”

Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that  product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”

Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”

Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”

The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?

One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away. 

Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”

Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at Google.org and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions. 

“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”

During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified. 

Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making,  and teaming.”

Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.

On Zoom: Innovation in Disaster Response Graduate Instructor Deniz Dogruer (upper left) and Course Developer-Lecturers Rachel Dzombak (upper right) and Vivek Rao (bottom).

Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.” 

“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.” 

—Tamara Straus

A Course for Addressing Wicked Problems in the Bay Area

A Course for Addressing Wicked Problems in the Bay Area

When fourth year media studies student Erik Phillip came across a flyer for the Blum Center’s Development Engineering course Hacking4Local, he was interested but wary.

“I thought I’d be the only undergraduate and the only non-engineer,” he said. “That was a terrifying combination.”

But Phillip, who was born and raised in Oakland and is proud member of its African American community, decided to go to the course’s information session anyway because of the changing economics and demographics of his hometown. He quickly learned two things: first, that the instructors of Hacking4Local sought students from multiple disciplines; and second, the course’s aim was to teach students how to design solutions for Oakland on complex topics such as homelessness, low-cost housing, and high-quality education.

Phillip had no delusion that he would walk away from the course in May with a solution to the affordable housing crisis, which was the subject he chose to focus on with a team of five students. Rather, he said, his expectation was and remains “to learn how the affordable housing crisis came about and how the systems around it works.”

Mostly, he said, he has been amazed how much he has learned due to course’s unusual approach, which combines pedagogies in interdisciplinary project-based learning, human-centered design, the flipped classroom, and student team learning as well as input from a half dozen professors and instructors, including Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, former City Administer of Oakland, and guest lecturers such as Steve Blank, whose Lean Launchpad and Lean Startup methodologies have been embraced by Silicon Valley startups and the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.

Hacking4Local is a hacking course only in name. Its first priority is framing a problem to be solved. While some of the student teams exploring local transportation emissions, equitable health access, and Oakland hills fire mitigation are using algorithms and data analysis in their inquiries—the primary method of the course is gathering information through research and interviews (at least five per week), synthesizing that information into eight-minute presentations (during which the instructors serve as a council of critics), and iterating and refining ideas.

Students get the real-world experience of working on problems identified by local government agencies, nonprofits, or companies. And at the end of the course, they must deliver their solutions, which can vary—a physical product with a bill of materials cost and a prototype, a web product with users, a mobile product with working code and users, or a service or policy solution with an implementation plan and anticipated cost of delivery.

The instructors—Development Engineering Lecturer Rachel Dzombak, Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, and Haas School of Business Entrepreneurship Lecturer Steve Weinstein—have assembled a reading list that familiarizes students with how to work on complex social issues, consider their historical and political contexts, and engage with communities affected by a variety of overlapping problems. The class introduces students to methodologies such as the “mission model canvas,” “customer discovery,” and “agile engineering,” and exposes them to guest speakers who have experience in Oakland communities and politics.

“The course is about design for the public good and helping students hone their skills on both qualitative and quantitative methods for understanding stakeholder needs and getting community feedback on possible solutions,” said Agogino, who serves as chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering and the Blum Center’s education director. “Students learn to value the complexities of government, the people it serves, and other stakeholders. They learn that as with any organization, there is a difference between formal power and informal power.”

Added Dzombak: “The class challenges students to think through the root cause of problems, the systems in which problems exist, and to understand potential consequences of interventions. Students are learning to navigate ambiguity using a human-centered process and gaining critical knowledge about politics and governance, which is rare for an engineering course.”

During one four-hour class in March, Phillip and his affordable housing teammates—Surabhi Yadav, a master’s student in Development Practice, Ben Truong, an undergraduate cognitive science student, and Andre Balthazard,  an undergraduate operations research and management sciences student—presented their findings on why affordable housing in Oakland has been inadequate and what they might devise for their client, the Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA). The team, which has conducted over 60 interviews with Oakland residents and community stakeholders, argued that one of the key problems in Oakland real estate is the lack of involvement from residents on issues of equitable development.

To this point, Steve Blank quipped: “The joke about community meetings about real estate development is they’re filled with retired people and stakeholders.”

The team members nodded. Phillip pointed out that since 2010, the Bay Area has added 722,000 jobs but only 106,000 housing units.

Blank pressed the group: “Yes, but there are multiple housing crises. Which one are you solving for?”

In an interview after the class, Surabhi Yadav said her team is aiming to solve for longtime residents who feel they are at risk of eviction or their children will be unable to live nearby. Yadav noted that although many longtime residents do not have individual financial or political power, they could have collective power.

“Unionizing power is time consuming to create,” noted Yadav. “Still, we’re questioning whether we can develop tools that will help Oakland residents harness their collective power. And we’re trying to figure out if we can help SUDA measure and develop what effective community development looks like.”

Yadav, who co-designed and co-taught a similar course for engineering students at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said classes that involve multiple disciplines and hands-on learning are good at developing students’ professional skills in communication, teamwork, managing priorities, and navigating ambiguities.

“You have to learn how to take feedback in these kinds of courses and go with the flow,” explained Yadav. “It’s about structuring uncertainty, because the logistics and pedagogy and learning outcomes of the class are very different.”

Barbara Waugh, an executive in residence at Haas, Oakland resident, and guest lecturer for Hacking4Local, sees another strength of the course: higher team performance.

“Diverse teams under- or outperform homogeneous teams depending on whether they ignore or leverage their diversity,” she said. “Shared passion for a project can be a great lever and our Hacking4Local teams demonstrate both the passion and the higher performance that leveraging diversity offers.”

—Tamara Straus

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Host Organizations

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