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Social work and engineering join forces to solve societal woes

Social engineering bridges the strengths of two disciplines at USC

by Charli Engelhorn
Shinyi Wu and Roybal Institute researchers
Shinyi Wu discusses a project with Provost Professor William Vega, right, and other researchers. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

A mutually beneficial relationship between the disciplines of social work and engineering is not necessarily an obvious combination.

However, leaders from the USC School of Social Work and USC Viterbi School of Engineering believe collaboration between the two fields is a completely appropriate development.

Research is not one person’s business — it’s a team business, and a team is defined as a multidisciplinary group of experts.

Haluk Soydan

“There is an organic relationship between social work and several other disciplines in a historical holistic perspective,” said Haluk Soydan, associate dean of research at the School of Social Work and director of the school’s Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services. “Engineering is about technical solutions, and social work is about social solutions. When you come down to it, there are questions and areas of interest that make them close to each other.”

Soydan refers to this bridge between the disciplines as “social engineering,” a term first coined by philosopher Karl Popper to represent the methods used to find and apply solutions to social problems through the use of social technology. Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi, agrees with Soydan, stating that engineering’s contribution to the development of digital media has significant potential to promote the mission of social work.

“I define technology as exploiting phenomena for useful purposes — exploiting meaning collaborating and leveraging technology, taking something and making something else out of it,” Yortsos said. “I believe we will see a convergence with social phenomena, and disciplines like social work will borrow or implement or partner with technologies and ways of thinking that have an engineering aspect.”

The makings of this collaboration largely hail from a joint summit held last summer between the schools. The summit gave engineering faculty members the opportunity to discuss how they articulated the grand challenges of their profession and areas where crossover exists with social work.

Practical applications

Eric Rice, an assistant professor with the School of Social Work, attended that meeting and discovered interesting opportunities for partnerships concerning his work with homeless youth.

After Rice found he shared mutual interests with Milind Tambe, Helen N. and Emmett H. Jones Professor in Engineering who specializes in computer sciences, the two have been working together for the last eight months on developing an HIV prevention intervention for teens and young adults experiencing homelessness.

“I presented my work [at the summit] about risk behaviors for homeless youth, and Milind got excited because of my real-world information about networks,” Rice said. “He saw an opportunity to push his computational methods forward and solve real-world problems.”

Rice’s mapping of social networks among young people and Tambe’s engineering perspective on strategy development came together nicely. The pair is now designing effective implementation strategies to see what works for the highly complicated and transient homeless youth population.

The data Rice collected through his research were sufficient to generate some suggestions to organizations working with this population, but without Tambe’s contribution, he would not have had any concrete evidence to support his assessment.

The collaboration, he said, elevated his research to a new level, allowing the researchers to provide advice backed by definitive evidence about what works and what doesn’t regarding prevention interventions.

Potential partnerships

Yortsos pointed to a potential collaborative project with Hortensia Amaro, Dean’s Professor of Social Work and Preventive Medicine at the School of Social Work and associate vice provost of community research initiatives. Discussions have centered on the proximal community around USC and creative ways to transform the neighborhood.

Yortsos refers to this sort of topic as a useful purpose for the exploitation of technology. However, before an individual can capitalize on technology to address such a purpose, there must be an understanding of certain phenomena that can be leveraged to create change.

“By phenomena, I mean a law, principle or some sort of fundamental property that change can be based on,” Yortsos said. “In engineering, we have the skills to exploit technology, but we don’t know what the useful purpose is when it comes to social work, and sometimes we don’t know what the phenomenon is, which you need to discover before you can figure out the useful purpose.”

Both departments see significant potential for future collaborations and are pleased with the progress made thus far.

One notable achievement has been the transition of an engineering faculty member to the School of Social Work. Associate professor Shinyi Wu now holds a joint position with both departments after making the decision to join social work due to collaboration with Kathleen Ell, Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity, and Poverty. Ell and Wu worked to find ways to use technology to improve support for patients with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.

“We saw a potential for technology to monitor and screen patients with depression and give that information to providers,” Wu said. “This is what really got me interested in public health and safety nets.”

Helping communities

Wu said the change to social work has afforded her the opportunity to focus more on solutions that benefit communities, something that was missing from the inherent human factors involved in engineering disciplines.

William Vega and Shinyi Wu

Vega discusses a project with Wu. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

“The social determinants of community allow a person to be in the best supportive environment for solutions,” Wu said. “Working with Dr. Ell and [the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging] allows me to bring analysis and interventions to communities to reduce the burden on the need for health care and get the appropriate help to those who need it.”

Through efforts at the Roybal Institute, Wu and her colleagues are working on a wireless-based mobile health training program for older adults with disabilities. They hope technology will help these individuals, who place a large demand on service providers, to better care for themselves, not just in terms of health but also productive living, meaning of life and social connections with others.

Soydan said bringing Wu into the school is a pioneering first step that is important for the school’s ultimate mission: the betterment of life for individuals and communities.

“Research is not one person’s business — it’s a team business, and a team is defined as a multidisciplinary group of experts,” Soydan said. “Complex problems require multifaceted and aggressive approaches, and further collaboration between our disciplines has great potential and is in line with the spirit of the university and our school.”

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