Urban Technical Extension: Recognizing Needs in Our Own Backyard

Many students attending urban universities can go their entire academic career without getting to know their neighbors, leading to the formation of stigmas and cultural barriers for both parties. Drexel University, located in the designated promise zone of West Philadelphia, strives to reduce university-to-neighborhood boundaries by creating a more integrated experience for students and community members alike.

In the public-private partner landscape, universities have their own key role to play, with the ability to provide interdisciplinary expertise and technical skills to address problems which might otherwise fall through the gaps. At Drexel University, one of the nation’s premier research institutions, President John Fry has committed to creating “the most civically engaged university in the United States.” The question is, “How?”

We begin the process by asking questions: “What are the issues experienced on a day-to-day basis for you?” As respectful partners, it is the university’s first obligation to listen very carefully. From there, mitigating problems must be done hand in hand with those enduring them, thereby ensuring solutions are what the neighborhood truly wants and needs.

One route for constructive discourse and advancement is Urban Technical Extension (UTX), a part of Drexel’s new Peace Engineering Program, which uses the university’s resources in technological excellence to construct beneficial engineering solutions alongside Philadelphia nonprofits. Resulting innovations may take the form of new technologies, apps, or systems-level models and processes that can be readily applied to build capacity and address important neighborhood-level issues.

The pilot UTX project is in partnership with the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), a Community Development Corporation located just west of Drexel’s campus in Powelton Village. As an engineering student currently working full time to kickstart Peace Engineering, I am spending an hour each week attending the PEC’s general staff meetings to attain an understanding of the many facets of the organisation. The issue we have collectively decided to tackle is the point of service at the center’s weekly food cupboard.

Each Saturday morning around 8 AM a line forms outside the People’s Emergency Center’s doors, but distribution does not begin until 10:30 AM. One of the most notable parts of PEC’s food cupboard, however, is their commitment to excellent customer service. Volunteers walk alongside participants telling them about each item, any upcoming community events, and engaging in friendly conversation. Because of the way the organisation treats its customers, beneficiaries are usually willing to wait to receive food assistance.

A real problem occurs, however, on days of inclement weather. Whether it is snow, rain, or extreme temperatures, days with poor conditions force food cupboard attendees to make an unfair decision: should they sacrifice their physical comfort and safety or their food? Many times, the latter is chosen and the turnout on those days is much less than an average day. This is a lose-lose situation. Not only are community members not receiving food to eat and serve to their families, but the pantry, who distributes mainly fresh produce, will end the day overstocked with food that will not last to the next week.

By evaluating the real parameters (which admittedly were different than the parameters I would have assumed without my time spent listening to managers, volunteers, and participants), we decided on a technical response to alleviate this struggle. We are in the final stages of creating a web-based application that volunteers will use on tablets to take the orders of people in line before the doors open. Once the orders are received on the inside of the building, other volunteers will pack that person's bag with the items they selected and run it out to them. This way, participants will still get interpersonal contact and an option to choose what they would like, but the wait will be shortened greatly. Once this application is ready to run, a feedback-based iterative process will make sure the application fulfills its intended purpose.

Problems that seem to have objective answers at first glance become far more complicated once human elements are introduced. These complications are worth addressing. It is expected of engineers to face some of the world's most pressing issues, and I strongly believe reducing poverty, hunger, and inequality should also fall within our expected work.

There is a dire need for bridging the gap between peacebuilders, policymakers, and technologists to work together in reaching the sustainable development goals. We at Drexel hope that Peace Engineering and programs like Urban Technical Extension are the first step in that direction.

Bryce Peckman is a third year Environmental Engineering student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is currently working to implement the first ever Peace Engineering program, a shared project between Drexel University and PeaceTech Lab intended to train scholars with technical backgrounds to apply their skills towards peacebuilding efforts.