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Katherine Erdman

Katherine Erdman, '19, MS '20

How an Urban Studies Class Made Me a Better Engineer

As the countdown to graduation began, I, like many other Stanford seniors, was eager to complete my general education Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing. As I planned my fall quarter, I was on the hunt for a class that satisfied my last unfulfilled requirement: Engaging Diversity. There were almost 200 classes to choose from, but I settled on Urban Studies 164: Sustainable Cities. I had a mild interest in environmental technology, so I decided to give it a go.

On the first day of class, I was surprised that the focus of the course wasn't on hydrogen fuel cells and electric cars. Rather, environmental health was just one of four aspects of sustainability we would be tackling, in addition to cultural continuity, social equity, and economic vitality.

This broadened definition of sustainability, going beyond greenhouse gases and air quality indexes, was especially meaningful on the day we talked about transportation in the Bay Area.

Like many other computer science students, I spent a summer interning at a large technology firm just miles from campus. I did not have a car and benefited from the shuttle service provided as part of the job. Every morning, I walked a few minutes to the nearest stop, hopped on the bus, and arrived to work without issue. I brought this up as an avenue to increase sustainability. The buses were quite full and eliminated at least hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly single-occupancy cars from the road.

While my classmates agreed that the shuttles helped with environmental health, I was challenged to also consider the soaring housing prices near newly placed shuttle stops that make longtime residents unable to afford to stay. They are often replaced by tech workers, eager to be closer to the shuttle stop and able to afford higher rent. Perhaps certain shuttle stops trade off cultural continuity in pursuit of sustainability?

Through many eye-opening discussions, I more clearly saw the effects of sustainability efforts within the social and cultural realms by the end of the quarter.

I walked away with a new perspective, which I applied to my senior project class CS210: Software Project Experience with Corporate Partners. My CS210 team partnered with Oracle and was given the task of creating social good technology. We decided to tackle the issue of employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Within this space, it's easy to identify unmet needs, such as the need for technological education for someone who has been disconnected from the job market for a number of years or the need for mock interviews for someone who has never formally applied for a job before.

However, my experience in Urban Studies 164 helped me understand how any solution has to fit within a larger ecosystem. I found that my team and I were challenged to look beyond economic vitality and consider the cultural continuity and social equity concerns that our solution had to address.

Whether integrating our solution into the parole preparation process for the incarcerated in Australia or modifying the product's user interface to be approachable for first-time digital users, our team attempted to address cultural and social issues that appear tangential, but are deeply connected to the product's success.

Katherine Erdman, '19, MS '20, was involved in the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students, SHIFT: Healthcare Innovation @ Stanford, and she++. She was also a member of the Student Alumni Council and the Viennese Ball Steering Committee.
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