College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

S2P: Hacking Humanities

From psychology to neuroscience, graduate students use science to revolutionize public policy
By Hannah Croft, Student Writer/CHASS Marketing & Communications |

Just as humanities are crucial to scientific research, scientific analysis is necessary when developing public policies.

In October 2020, UCR's Center for Science to Policy (S2P) held its first Policy Hackathon. A team of graduate students, led by developmental psychology Ph.D. student Agnes Varghese, included graduate students with psychology, engineering, business, microbiology, and neuroscience concentrations, all dedicated to bringing a scientific perspective to public policy.

At the two-day event held at UC Riverside, team members collaborated to bring unique perspectives to the event’s research, data analysis, and policy memo compilation. The team submitted a policy memo, titled "The School Shooting Crisis: How Do We Move Forward?," to be reviewed by judges with Ph.D.’s in science in Sacramento.

“We had a very wide array of graduate students on our team,” Varghese said. “And they each brought a unique perspective. Even if you don’t study topics relevant to school shootings for a living, we know everyone cares about resolving this crisis. It’s always good to get other people’s perspectives so that you can really think of new approaches to the problems you are attempting to solve through your research.”

“Because we had scientists from all over campus — psychology to engineering — the work we were able to do was well-rounded and had real-world applications that were informed from these many perspectives,” said developmental psychology Ph.D. student Danielle Delany. “With skills from our Ph.D. programs and training from the Science to Policy Program, we are able to read the research, write for policymakers, and address these important societal issues."

During the hackathon, Delany and Varghese were able to provide specialized knowledge on programs introduced in the memo, such as social-emotional learning programs.

Social-emotional learning programs, such as the Second Step Program, train educators to teach specially designed lesson plans in classrooms in order to better address empathy, communication, emotion regulation, problem-solving, and bullying while allowing students to feel more connected to their peers. However, while programs like these are implemented in over 26,000 schools nationwide, they are not mandatory in California, and Varghese’s team is working to change that.

The policy memo submitted at the hackathon also acknowledged the state’s push to improve gun control and cited the benefits of also increasing the counselor-to-student ratio in schools, since California’s ratio is abnormally low.

“I still think that this is a very complex issue to solve along with the controversy over our gun laws, and this will require efforts on multiple fronts,” said materials science and engineering PhD student Morgan Dundon. “But I now understand more clearly that there is still a lot we don’t know about school shootings, especially how to predict them. This is why we decided to research programs, like social-emotional learning, that benefits all students. This training can help students cope with mental health and conflict in a healthier way to decrease bullying and aggression, all of which have been found to be connected with school shootings.”

Judges cited the policy memo as “concise and focused,” stating “the time and attention students gave their proposal shine[d] through.”

“After the hackathon event, members of our team and the Science to Policy student cabinet met with Chris Lynch, the BCOE Dean, to discuss this research and steps to take moving forward, since this is a topic that he is very passionate about,” Dundon said. “We also recently submitted this to the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) and Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG) policy memo competition.”

The team has since been accepted for publication into the JSPG, and are currently waiting to hear back on the NSPN competition results.

“What the hackathon did and what the Science to Policy program does in general is it brings scientists, engineers, and social scientists together,” said Science to Policy Director and Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Emerita Susan Hackwood. “Collectively, they have an enormous ability to do mathematical analysis, statistics, probability, that’s common to all subjects, and the intersection of that and policy is what makes it interesting. It’s important to have the social scientists there at the table with them because they have such an interesting perspective.”

The Center for Science to Policy does not just host hackathon events and other policy events. They also offer a rigorous, ten-week certificate course meant to prepare students for working in public policy. The course trains graduate students involved with lab sciences in communication and policy development, and some participants receive the opportunity to enter into fellowship programs with legislators’ offices after the course’s completion.

“It’s a hard match, but it’s a good match,” Hackwood said. “We started last year with Congressman Mark Takano’s office, and this year we have two fellows placed in congressional and assembly offices...This program we have here at UCR is a model for other schools around the country and is part of a national organization, the National Science Policy Network. This was co-created by one of UCR’s own graduate students from a few years ago, Holly Mayton. This has now become a national HUB. It’s huge, with [48] chapters around the country and hundreds of students engaged.”

Delany is currently the newest fellow in Congressman Takano’s office in Riverside and is focusing on the economic effects of COVID-19 in the 41st district. Varghese is also a fellow in Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes’ office in San Bernardino and is focusing on racism as a public health crisis in the 47th district.

Due to the pandemic, most children are not in school, but the hackathon group insists now is the perfect time to prepare policies that will protect students when they do go back to school, especially in California, which has the highest rate of school shootings in the country.

“I’ve really wanted to push for instating social-emotional learning before students go back to school or right when students go back,” Varghese said. “If they have pent-up frustration from all of the uncertainty and change associated with the pandemic, it might be very possible that school shootings start back up when children physically re-enter school grounds.”

With the current COVID-19 crisis bringing more scrutiny to school districts, the team hopes that more policies will be implemented to better protect students and teachers and that long-term programs will help bring more awareness to school districts.

“Most of the topics within social-emotional skill training are things teachers already know and have done in their training,” Delany said. “Communication, emotion regulation, problem-solving, and also helping with bullying: Conflict resolution techniques are important not just for the school shooting crisis, but for everyday classroom management. It will help teachers manage their classrooms, and make it a better learning environment for everyone.”

California State Assembly member Jose Medina
Members of UCR's Science to Policy pose with California State Assembly member Jose Medina, center.

FEATURED PHOTO. Photos courtesy of Agnes Varghese.
UCR's Center for Science to Policy hosts hackathons and offers a rigorous, ten-week certificate course meant to prepare students for working in public policy.