By Ambika Opal

A few weeks ago I was a mentor for a UN Women event called Innovation 4 Impact (i4i) that brought together 70 amazing women and girls from Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, and Myanmar to discuss gender equality and develop initiatives to address issues of gender equality in their home communities. I was struck by the strength, intelligence, and drive of the participants, and was also struck by how many of them wanted to address issues of gender equality and STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). Almost all of them lamented to me how their STEM education limited them from engaging meaningfully in social issues they are interested in — a conversation I have had with many other students and practitioners of STEM disciplines in Canada as well.

In my experience as an engineer working in social fields, STEM and social issues are intertwined in many ways, and my background in STEM has helped me to add value to workplaces that primarily deal with policy and social issues. In this blog post, I am going to share a few areas where I think STEM disciplines are well integrated into social, global, and development issues, based on my experiences at UNDP Cambodia.

User-Centered Design

At the heart of engineering is the user-centered design process, a framework for making products that meet the needs of target populations. In this process, a designer will create personas, fake characters who embody the characteristics of the target population, and will keep these personas at the forefront when designing. At many stages in the design process – research, prototyping, iteration, validation, etc. – the designer will test the product with real people. User-centered design is similar to the framework that is used to create development programs at UNDP, it’s just not called user-centered design. Here, we create programs with the beneficiaries (personas/users) in mind, run pilot projects (prototypes), test out different solution ideas (iteration), and get feedback from partners and users on lessons learned (validation). To engineers, this user-centered design process is already familiar, and its application to development work is more seamless than you would think.

Inclusive Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Data is fast becoming one of the world’s most profitable resources. Data scientists and AI practitioners hold a lot of power, as they are the ones interpreting the data to create usable summaries and information, and creating the algorithms that influence decisions and frameworks. When the results of data science or AI will be applied to a social cause, it is important that scientists do not embed their own biases into the analysis, and that they understand the social context their analysis and algorithms will be used in (for a classic example of when data science/AI has gone wrong when applied to social contexts, see here: People who understand data-based technical processes like data science and AI, as well as the social applications for which it is being used, are extremely valuable to organizations like UNDP.

Future of Work

New technologies such as AI, automation, the internet-of-things, and the digital economy are changing the future of work, particularly for youth. In order to support Cambodian youth and prepare them for this change in employment types and skills, UNDP Cambodia’s Youth Employment project contributes to policies regarding youth skills development, supports skills training, and fosters young entrepreneurs. Since a lot of the changes to the future of work relate to technology and digital innovation, it is extremely useful for someone with a background in these areas to provide input.

Energy and Environment

Policy work regarding energy and the environment requires a deep knowledge of energy and environmental management, but also an understanding of science and quantitative processes. In my work with the solar energy team at UNDP Cambodia, I have done quantitative economic modelling regarding solar energy and energy regulations, and have to understand quantitative and technical information regarding energy products and systems on a daily basis. When dealing with energy topics one also has to have a solid understanding of the science behind energy production and climate change, which also falls under STEM.

If you are interested in both technical and social issues, fear not, there are many potential topics and career paths for you. The topics I discussed above are just a sampling of areas that meaningfully combine both STEM and social issues – I am sure you will find your own that speaks to your interests.