Engineers are problem solvers – we look for ways to make people’s lives better. And sometimes that means working for the greater good. Here at Tech and across the College of Engineering, there are programs for our students to focus on humanitarian efforts and make a social impact around the world. But also in our hometown of Atlanta.

Joy Harris is the director of the Engineering for Social Innovation center here at Tech. She’s also involved in Doctors without Borders, Enterprise to Empower, Grand Challenges and CREATE-X.

Album art, illustration

Steve W. McLaughlin

Georgia Institute of Technology
Provost, Georgia Institute of Technology
Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Steve McLaughlin, headshot

Joy Harris

School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Director, Engineering for Social Innovation Center
Joy Harris, headshot


Audio & Captions

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[train whistle]

[applause and cheering]

[instrumental music: Ramblin

Wreck from Georgia Tech]

Steve McLaughlin: I’m Steve McLaughlin, Dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering and this is The Uncommon Engineer.

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Announcer: We’re just absolutely pleased as punch to have you. Please say a few words.


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Steve McLaughlin: Engineers are problem solvers. We look for ways to make people's lives better. And sometimes that means working for a greater good. Here at Georgia Tech and across the college of engineering there are programs for our students to focus on humanitarian efforts and to make a social impact not only throughout the world but also in our hometown right here in Atlanta.

Welcome to another episode of the uncommon engineer podcast. I'm Steve McLoughlin Dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering. The Uncommon Engineer discusses how Georgia Tech engineers make a difference in our world, in our daily lives, and in ways you might not expect.

Our guest today is Dr. Joy Harris. She's the director of the engineering for Social Innovation Center here at Georgia Tech. She's also involved in Doctors Without Borders, Enterprise to Empower, Grand Challenges and CreateX. Welcome to the program Joy.

Joyelle Harris: Thanks Steve.

Steve McLaughlin: It's really great to have you here today. I can't wait for our listeners to hear all the exciting things that you're working on and in different dimension. Because our show has always been about research and I know we're going to talk a bit about research but more importantly the societal impacts of the work. And so I'm really excited to have you here today on our—our podcast and I am— more than that I can't wait till our audience gets to hear all the exciting things that you do and so before we start talking about the projects that you and your students are working on, can you tell us a little bit more about the engineering for Social Innovation Center that you lead and you know how does that— how does engineering translate into the humanitarian work that you do?

Joyelle Harris: The engineering for Social Innovation Center is an initiative, a program, a collection of students and faculty who are interested in using technical skills for positive sustainable social impact. I have several programs. One is the College of Engineering Green Challenge Scholars Program which is an off ramp for our living and learning community because students can only participate in the LLC freshman year.

We also run a VIP research team, an independent research team, a faculty Fellows Program to how faculty members who want to do impact work, we offer small grants for that. I also have a global leadership class that's sponsored through the Office of International Education.

And we serve as a conduit for the Center for Serve, Learn, Sustain to connect sustainability and sustainable development to the College of Engineering. And then I have a high school internship program as well because I would like to recruit high school students into the Department of Electrical Engineering or within the College of Engineering and also, I want to help them see that engineering is an amazing way to make a contribution.

My high school interns do tend to be minorities. Just happens to be that way. And my center also, the other reason and the other goal and focus is to maintain diversity within engineering.

I think I do a pretty good job of that. My teams are in any given semester I'm interacting with half women which is rare in the College of Engineering and also 20 to 30 percent underrepresented minorities. So the center also serves as a recruiting tool for diversity and inclusion within the college.

Steve McLaughlin: You know from your activities on campus anyone can tell how incredibly dedicated you are to making the world a better place. So, before we talk about some of this project what inspired that passion?

Joyelle Harris: First the needs that I see are overwhelming and I used to feel so overwhelmed that I would ignore it, but eventually that got to me. And I decided it's much better to try to do something even if it's one small thing to meet some of those needs. And from that I recognized there are lots and lots of people who want to help meet these needs and they just need a channel or a conduit to do so. And from there the center started with a very small project and then has grown over time so that I get to work with hundreds of students each semester.

Steve McLaughlin: Well you use the word channel and I'm going to use the word person. So in that case they need a person to present the idea to pull together to insert energy and I think that that you are that person and so maybe we can just start by sharing a couple of the projects that you're working on and how you got going?

Joyelle Harris: All right. I have three that right now this semester are my—my babies among many. I don't want insult my other babies but these three are pretty good. One of them is an air purification project in India. And this project is so amazing because a student came to me and said he wanted to lead it. He is from India and he says the air quality is so awful that it's— it's physically difficult to breathe in the urban centers. And he came up with two different ideas. One being a moss that if you grow it the right way will naturally purify the air and then the other being an electro mechanical device that you can put in a roundabout or on street lamps that air will blow through and then come out clean on the other side. And this project is so amazing because he was able to gather 30 more students to help him with this project and he serves as the project lead. I serve as the faculty mentor and they just got their first prototype to work. He also has connections with several government officials in India. So he'll be able to take it back and prototype it during the Christmas holiday. And I just feel amazed that I was able to provide the channel or to be the person to connect him with the resources to implement that idea. Nice. The other project, another one that that is just my baby, is a sewing project we're working with the community in Marsabit, Kenya. And this particular community has a group of women who are outcasts because they are widows. They're not old as I guess maybe we would say you know 70 80, they lived with their husbands for 50 years and they passed away. They're my age 40 and fabulous. But life is hard. Life is a lot harder. And so these women don't have any means of income. Well this project is to provide opportunities for them to learn how to sew. We take sewing machines from the U.S. that are electric and actually convert them to manual. So electrical engineers are working on this project and giving them that process. They convert the machines to manual operation. We only need 10 machines and we can teach the whole community. And then the partner that I work with has a contract with the schools in Kenya to make uniforms. So the partner teaches the widows how to sew for free. They make the uniforms for pay and then the partner takes a percentage of their income in the beginning to keep the operation going. And then once the widows graduate from the school they have a marketable skill they can support themselves. That one's really cool. And then the last one is an accessible coding project. So I work with the council of schools and services for the blind. And one of the huge needs is for students who are blind or visually impaired to learn coding. Every college student needs that. It's a core class at Georgia Tech. It's a core class anywhere that you go, but it is very difficult for a student who is blind to learn math and computer science. So these students are creating an online course that's completely accessible for screen readers and most coding is— is just not accessible.

And so the screen readers allow the student to hear, but also to visualize. The site is not beautiful by any means, but it doesn't need to be because it's perfect for a blind student who wants to learn python which is the language that they're working in.

And so that link will be up on the ESI Web site. I have a connection with teachers of the visually impaired and ideally, we'll be able to reach hundreds of students throughout the country and teach them how to code. Yes!

Steve McLaughlin: I'm kind of envisioning—could there possibly be three more different projects than the ones you described? And it's just incredible. First, you know, what's the common thread not necessarily technologically but you know what—how did those ideas come about? Is it just you or are there more common threads among those?

Joyelle Harris: Oh, now that you point it out, yes I am. I am the one common thread. I think it's because the students— and at this point our nonprofit partners are starting to seek me out as well, but they recognize there is someone who is willing to connect and lead these efforts. Other than that, I also like babies. Anything that serves children, youth, young learners, I tend to gravitate towards and so even the project with the widows started out as a community that was helping the children. The children were suffering from severe insect infestations. The insects would bore into their feet and cause the feet to swell up 3, 4, 5 times the normal size. And so that was the initial project, but then we started taking on other work for the community and it just tends to be that I think people also know that it's easier to gather sympathy and funding when you're helping children. So they tend to come to me with that and also because I have two young children it just helps. It helps me to see that. Other than that, there is no common thread. None. I just want my students to use their technical skill sets to make the world better in some way for some person. I also want them to be able to see the person that they're helping. Like for me as an engineer that is huge. When I worked in industry, I appreciated the products, the products make my life better, but I never got to see the person that I was helping with that product. And I like now that I can see the person and not even for a thank you really, but for a yes, you are going to thrive and you are going to be better in life and healthier because we worked to make that happen.

Steve McLaughlin: And those making their lives better involve technological solutions. Again, that's really as you highlighted, it harnesses the incredible abilities and energy of our students. So can you say more about your engineering background and your technical skills and how they play in every day other than just all the connecting you're doing?

Joyelle Harris: I learned from my Ph.D. advisor, he's this amazing man, that I don't have to be a technical expert in order to drive technical projects. That was, I would say, the best skill ever from getting the Ph.D. So my technical background undergrad math and electrical engineering and then grad, masters, and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and then also I got an MBA from Scheller College of Business because it just helps. It helps to think about these technical projects from a financially sustainable point of view and the technical training though, it helps me to see does this make sense? And will this work? So the three projects that I mentioned, air purification, growing moss, I am not a botanist by any means. Even with the python coding my students are teaching me how to code in Python. I only had to learn C++ and Java. Yay me. And so now that they're teaching me this, I know that they're learning by teaching me. But I also very easily can spot when they're—when they're not understanding. And so I can connect them to the resources that they need in order to learn that. The only project that is even remotely in my wheelhouse is converting the electric sewing machines. And that just makes sense because you're going from an electric to a mechanical device and you look at a basic circuit it works. I would say that the biggest challenge and the biggest joy is being able to see what needs to be done and then helping my students map out a technical path to get there. That's where the learning occurs and the— the impact happens when they get it and the client can use the product, but I see them learning a lot in that process. Because most of them already have the technical skills needed to do any of the projects. I've learned how to scope them in that way, but they don't know how to get from the start to the finish and that's where a technical skill set is—is needed.

Steve McLaughlin: And that's kind of you're at a place, we’re at this fantastic place that does revolve around technological solutions and so you're not just the channel or the person. There's a lot of technical skills in there and technical knowledge that is needed to guide the students and the solutions. You used the word gravity before and I was kind of imagining you as the source of gravity that the students are pulled to you. I think now because you're doing so many projects and so as students come to you and say hey, I want to do something cool, right? And that's probably where they start. Can you talk about any of these projects and what it means to the students, how they find their way to you and then what you do?

Joyelle Harris: I think they find their way to me by talking to each other because I had to stop marketing. [laughing] It's too many of them. I love them all, but there's so many and I think they tell each other, “Oh I worked on this cool project” and so another one comes and another one comes sort of that organic word of mouth growth.

I would say two of the most interesting projects that came to me from students, just two of many, one of them was local with a Latina Latino American Association. A Latina student said I would like to help L.A.A., but I don't know how. And I thought well let's go and ask them how they need help. We can do that. Students don't always feel empowered to ask and after meeting with them, understanding their needs, we realize they have a huge amount of data that they do nothing with and they can't capitalize on it. So, nice data analytics projects was born, but that was from a student who wanted to help a member of her community and she heard about me from another student. Another project came again from India waste management company. Another one of my Indian students wanted to help reduce waste in India. And I empowered him as in, and by empowered, I mean I forced him, to find a client who could help him meet that need. So he gathered together a small team and they cold called people in India and found a gentleman who was ecstatic to have some help to reduce his waste and he had very specific issues. He said I don't know how to recycle chip bags because of the metal lining inside of the bags. The plastic is recyclable but the metal inside is not. And so we spent the whole semester figuring out how to make rope from chip bags, how to make lining for homes that's waterproof, and we gave him a full suite of solutions that he could use, but again it was students talking to other students saying if you want to help people even if it's not a project that Dr. Harris already has, she'll help you find someone to implement that work and to make that impact specifically that you want to make.

Steve McLaughlin: So one of the things that we hear about this generation of students, you know the students that are coming to universities, is they really want to change the world. They want to make a difference. And so a lot of times the world doesn't think of you know engineers, I think, is doing just math and physics, but there are lots of students who want to give back and change the world and really make a difference. And so talk more about that. How your program helps combine those?

Joyelle Harris: I see that our students do have this need and desire not just on campus, but also in their careers to have a meaningful role that plays some part of making society better. And I think that's because our students have more than they could fathom or dream up. They have so much in excess that it just makes sense for them to give more to those around them so that that excess does not go to waste. And I always work in three veins through the center, but also to help my students understand you really can be the difference no matter where you are. Whether you're in school or a Fortune 100 company or in a nonprofit or a social enterprise. Wherever you are you can make a difference. The three ways that I help them or try to get them to see is first of all they can increase the capacity of an organization that's already doing this work. And usually a technical solution will increase capacity. If you're already doing something most of the time you need something to help you do it better. And usually technology will do that. So I want our students to recognize if you find a company, a nonprofit, an organization who's already doing something and you give them the opportunity to do it 10 times more then you've made a huge return on your investment.

The other thing that I like for them to do is when they're considering jobs join companies that aren't just focused on philanthropy, but impact is actually part of their mission.

Steve McLaughlin: And so can you talk about how it is you found your way to Georgia Tech and why what you're doing now as opposed to anything else?

Joyelle Harris: This is so much more fun. So my career path it's like the random walk of an electron. I worked as a consultant for a— government for the Navy for several years as a co-op in between my master's and Ph.D., during the Ph.D. I also worked for NASA and for the Oakridge National Lab. So I got to explore what government research looks like and then I worked for a technical consulting company and some of my bigger clients were Toyota and Dell, Exponent is the company, but if you are not getting sued by many, many people you probably haven't heard of them. And then I worked for several years at Intel in RND as an engineer. So between the government labs and NASA and Intel in RND and technical consulting I couldn't find that space that woke me up early and kept me up late because I cared so much about the work. And it goes back to the work was always about the product and never about the person.

When I tried Georgia Tech instantly the click was there because the work is always about the person. It's about the student when you're teaching a class and making sure that they learn. It's about helping colleagues to do more of what they do. It's about helping the community to—to thrive and to gather. But at the end of every single project or program or initiative there is a person and this is the only job that I've had that has given me that benefit and I can stay up late and wake up early to help people. I don't care as much about the trace width of a through hole in a die. I don't mind that it's two microns too large beyond the spec. It just didn't keep me up at night even though some of my colleagues it did. But—but for me a person keeps me up and wakes me up. So that's why Georgia Tech is my heart. I will be here until I die. Until I retire whichever comes first.

Steve McLaughlin: I think every human being has the desire to help. To make a difference, to change the world you know, but our students come here whether society tells them or we them or their parents tell them or the high school guidance counselor tell them you know, do your math, do your physics, and you know get a good job. And so you're at the center of kind of reminding them that they can do all that and have social impact and be connected to people. And so what—so for the student that doesn't necessarily have that desire yet, what's the click that would occur for—for even more students to have that social impact?

Joyelle Harris: I would say that click is the knowledge that you can be great. I work with many students who want to be great. You are great when you serve more people. The more people you serve, the bigger the impact you have, the greater you are to the point of leaving a legacy that lasts for generations. The people that we remember for centuries after they are gone are those people who served and made an impact in the lives of many, many people. And I do work with a lot of students who may or may not want to provide clean water for children or provide sewing machines for widows or they may not want to purify air, but there is something in them that wants to leave a legacy and this work allows every person to leave a legacy.

Steve McLaughlin: And so you have found a way to use technology as—as the key that unlocks that. And so I'm trying to formulate the question on like how do we do an even better job of using technology as that key to unlock this—this ambition that our students have. To unlock it in a social impact way. So I'm interested in the details of like I'm—you know describe some moments where you saw that happen in a student or a project that really unlocks that in the students?

Joyelle Harris: Well one I'm actually working with a student right now and he wants to be great, but he doesn't see himself being the next Steve Jobs. He doesn't see— and many of us don't. We—we don't see ourselves being the next Elon Musk. We recognize even though they are technical and amazing they're— they're shooting stars. They are needles in a haystack and they're one in a million.

But the work that I do show students you don't have to be that person. And you also don't have to have millions of dollars in resources back behind you in order to do that. And so I think this student in particular what he wants to do is start a company. And so he's looking for a way to start a company that makes an impact. Because he recognized that essentially that's what these great men are doing. They are making an impact. They happen to be making an impact through technology. And so if we make an impact through technology then this stands to reason that the possibility is there for him to be great. I also think about my—my students who are working on very nuts and bolts and nitty gritty details of projects. When they lose themselves in the work I see that light bulb going off. They get into their flow and they recognize that this semicolon in this code or this through hole on this board is— is a small part in such a humongous big picture that it makes sense to focus on getting that code or wiring that board or understanding soldering processes. And it's the technology that gets them to that point. They also see that without the technology they don't— they don't have a skill set that makes them unique. They don't have a skill set that makes them financially viable. The technology skillset helps them to do that. Also they see that they have options. They have many, many options that someone without a technological background is just not going to have. And I think our students are recognizing that value. It's nice to be able to join Apple or join the Peace Corps. Whichever one you want or do both. You don't have to choose. You can join the Peace Corps first and then join Apple or take a leave of absence from Apple and do the Peace Corps. But our students can do that and the technology skill set is what they recognize it opens the door for them to do that work.

Steve McLaughlin: And so you talked a little bit earlier about you're— one of the things that ESI is working on as in Grand Challenges. And can you say a little bit more about our— the Grand Challenges Program and the kinds of projects affiliated with those?

Joyelle Harris: Yes, the Grand Challenges Program has— and this is the Grand Challenges Program that's sanctioned by the National Academy of Engineers. They identify 14 grand challenges that are facing our world at this time. And our students have to pick a challenge and attack that challenge in five different ways. They focus on hands on research, some interdisciplinary studies, service to the community, entrepreneurship, and a cross-cultural experience. Now the way the program works is the students self-identify, they self-select, and they apply and the application is pretty simple. What Grand Challenge do you want to work on? And then how do you want to fulfill the program requirements? And then we help them to build a cohesive career at Georgia Tech where they can say when they graduate and also on their LinkedIn profile, you have to have an electronic presence that showcases what you do, we help the students to build a career path. It shows I know how to solve a problem in many different ways. I can do research on this problem. I can understand the academics behind this problem. I know how to implement a solution in a financially sustainable way.

I also understand the cross-cultural implications of this problem and Grand Challenges is a program that helps them to do that. The other benefit of the program is we don't require our students to have a high GPA. You have to be in good academic standing, which is a 2.0, which means we get those students who may not qualify for a lot of your 3.5 GPA opportunities, but we still give them a way to connect with lots of different areas across the campus and we give them meaning and we give them purpose. And it's a large group of students who are looking for those opportunities who may not have a 4.0.

Steve McLaughlin: And I know one of the things that you're also involved with is the startup community that's flourishing on the campus today. This program called CreateX where we're were helping students learn about entrepreneurship and help them start companies and you know and let's be honest many of those student teams and companies are, you know, hope to develop companies that are sold to folks like Apple or Microsoft or can compete with those companies but how we connect the work that you're doing in ESI to entrepreneurship to tell students that it's really about building a sustainable enterprise even if it's only focused on solving a societal problem not necessarily focused on selling their company to Apple. And so what you bring to—

on the entrepreneurship side to your teams is also unbelievably valuable. So what do you tell students who want to take an idea and create a company but not necessarily become billionaires?

Joyelle Harris: I tell them yes do it. Let's do it now. Apply at a startup launch. Let's get you seed funding. Let's get coaching and let's do it. I work primarily—my niche within CreateX our campus entrepreneurship program is for those students who want to launch social enterprises. Like you said they're not trying to build a company that Apple is going to buy, although they may, but they really want a sustainable solution for a problem that they're trying to solve and this is why I got the MBA to understand the business side of building solutions. I would tell those students you don't have to start a nonprofit, particularly one that depend solely on donations, because the economy, the market, there's so much that's beyond your control when you depend solely on people to give for the goodness of giving it for the sake of giving. On the other hand, a viable and sustainable social enterprise is usually going to help solve the problem for decades and for years, for a long time into the future.

And so, I work with students to think about what is a business model that is going to make the solution makes sense for the community that you're trying to serve? Specifically, for the community that you're trying to serve and that's what I do in CreateX. Also, through startup lab, through our tech ventures, we have undergrad courses, we have grad courses, and that's one of the things that we explore from an academic standpoint. How do you go about that process of creating a sustainable solution that's economically sustainable in addition to environmentally sustainable?

Steve McLaughlin: So one of the questions that we always ask of all of our guests on The Uncommon Engineer so Dr. Joy Harris, what makes you an uncommon engineer?

Joyelle Harris: It's a humbling question because I feel like the most common person in the room. All the time. But if I had to pick something that makes me uncommon, I would say it's because my only boundary condition is the person that I'm trying to serve is the only limit, is the only thing that matters. Whether it's the student I want to teach or the client whose capacity I'm trying to improve or the community whose lives I'm trying to impact. They are the boundary. That is where I want to come and stop and that defines everything that I do.

Steve McLaughlin: You know we've heard so many different things and the huge impact that that you and your students are having. So before—before we leave today can you tell the audience how it is they can connect to your center? What's the best way for them to learn more about you?

Joyelle Harris: You can go to www.ESI.GATECH.Edu

Steve McLaughlin: Well thank you so much, Joy, for visiting us here today. Fantastic to hear all about the project you've got. I know because I've had a chance to work with you before this is just the beginning and we're just scratching the surface. So hopefully folks will take the time to go to the web page that you gave. And we are just so fortunate to have you here on our campus focused on making a difference in the lives of our students in our community. So thank you so much for everything that you're doing for the Georgia Tech community and Atlanta.

Joyelle Harris: And thank you for having me.

Steve McLaughlin: For now that's all for The Uncommon Engineer. I'm Steve McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

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Audio & Captions

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I’m Steve McLaughlin, dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering, and this is The Uncommon Engineer.

[scanning through radio stations]

[jazz music]

Steve McLaughlin: Sounds incredibly complex… It sounds like… You need to have abilities that span… I’m really geekin’ out here.


Steve McLaughlin: I’m curious to hear more about the sewing project for the widows. How did that all start? Where did that all come from? How did those relationships develop? There’s an “Ah-ha” moment in there somewhere and I’m curious to learn more about that.

Joyelle Harris: So that project came about when I took students to Kenya. We went there to see what we could do to serve the community and to also implement a previous project that my students had worked on. While we were there, our sponsors for the trip, the organization is called Partners for Care, and John Hirbo is the man in Kenya who’s working with the community. He showed us— first he took us to the village. We got to meet the people. The women are beautiful and statuesque and strong and powerful and we got to talk to them, he translated, and then we saw their facilities. And he took us to this room and says, “This is an empty room, but I want to put sewing machines in this room.” And I asked him why? OK, that seems odd. And then he explained to me, there’s a community that I want to empower and you didn’t get to meet them because they’re outcasts so they tend not to interact with the rest of society. People just consider them to be not valuable and not contributing. And he said but I have an opportunity, I just don’t have the resources to meet this opportunity. And he told me more about the contract that he was able to get with the school system and the widows who want to learn to sew and he said the problem is all we have are electric sewing machines. And that’s a real issue in a low resource country. So by him saying that I thought oh, well we can make them not electric. You know, that’s not so difficult for them to still operate with a foot pedal. And we talked about some different options. It’s interesting it used to be a lot cheaper to buy one with a foot pedal, but now that is vintage. You will pay three times as much for a mechanical one. And as we talked more I thought OK, how—I helped him to walk through how many do you need, how many people can you serve, what impact can you make, will this be sustainable? Because I’ve also learned in this work a single one-time donation to a non-sustainable project actually doesn’t help, it hurts more than it helps. And once we had a sustainability plan in place then I said OK we can do this. The other— what I would say really cool thing about this project, what I appreciate is he is learning. So we are not—we don’t have a retro fitting sewing machine factory here. We chose one and then designed the process to do it and then made it simple so that a non-engineer can replicate that process. Because it doesn’t make sense to send 10 machines to Atlanta, and then ship 10 machines to Marsabit. It makes a lot more sense just to ship them to Marsabit and then show him how to do the one. And so that project kind of—it came out of actually visiting and talking and seeing the community and understanding how we could help.

[futuristic sound effects]

Joyelle Harris: So for example, Coca-Cola. I’m doing a project with Coca-Cola in the spring. Coca-Cola has a mission to replenish every drop of water that they take. And it’s actually a business directive, because they can’t make Coke without water. And so they recognize the communities in which we serve, and Cocke is everywhere. There needs to be clean water for the people to drink in order for there to be clean water for us to make Coca-Cola. And joining a company like that, where it’s not the social impact of clean water is not relegated to corporate social responsibility. It is ingrained in the business mission. Then students, when you’re at a company like that, you’re going to inevitably make a difference day-to-day.

And then the other, third way is to teach people what you know. Even if you only know a little, you really can teach somebody else that thing. And then you increase their capacity to do stuff. Our engineering students are brilliant, and many times you can take this humongously complex, technical solution and simplify it so that a person who’s not trained in engineering can still accomplish it. And when you do that, you allow that person to then go forth and make their own impact. You’ve changed their lives. So I try to work with our students to do that as engineers and improve their careers but also the people that they touch every day.

[swing music]

Steve McLaughlin: For a high school student or a parent or even a high school guidance counselor who’s listening and really resonates with the idea of getting an engineering education or a STEM education but for… but for societal good, the purpose of their education is to have a societal impact. What would you tell them to do now, whether they’re in junior high school or high school? And how do you prepare yourself for a technological career but for social good?

Joyelle Harris: The way that I prepare my high school interns is I pair them with a nonprofit organization and I give them a technical volunteer project. For example, one of my high school students did a great job of working on a project for the City of East Point. The City of East Point, I know one of the city councilmen and he’s interested in revitalizing many of the homes that are abandoned throughout the city. But he needs to find those homes. He needs to know physical addresses for where they’re located, and the goal is to reclaim those homes for the city and then give them to public service workers. So to police officers, to firemen, to teachers, to people who work for the state, in order to, first of all, give them affordable housing, but then also let them rehabilitate the homes, rehab them, refurbish them, and make the community thrive again. Having police officers in your community makes it safe. Having teachers in your community helps. Having social workers, all of these public services can help.

And so I gave this student a technical project to actually help locate the homes. He designed an application, a mobile application, to pinpoint where the homes are, given utility records, locate the address, put it on a map, and then see what the surrounding area is like, as well, so that now the city councilman can market these homes, because he knows where they are, to public service workers in the community to eventually start the process of giving these homes away and they rehabilitate them or rehab them.

Now, I could have given that student a manual volunteer project, to drive around the city and look. But that does not increase his technical skillset at all, and it's also not effective. It's not scalable. But by giving him a technological project and then helping him go through that, that volunteer assignment had a lot more meaning and sustenance, and it also made a much bigger impact, because now that process—we gave it to the councilman, and as he wants to look at other pockets throughout his community, he can do that.

So I would say, if you want to volunteer, instead of going to the soup kitchen and serving food, look at the organization that's serving the food and help them maximize or minimize food waste. Help them to determine the foot traffic that they need, so that they're able to serve more people in a more timely manner. Develop a way for them to manage their queues. Do something to increase the capacity of the organization. That's going to help build the student’s technical skillset, but it also is a great story for your college application. It's great to go to the soup kitchen and serve food, but you make a much bigger impact when you help the soup kitchen to serve more food.

Steve McLaughlin: So for that student, because many high schools now require some kind of community service project. So you're saying that the student who was going to go to the soup kitchen, rather than saying, hey, when can I serve soup, that student might say, what are the problems you're facing in running your soup kitchen.

Joyelle Harris: Yes. What problems are you facing? And how can I help you solve those problems? Yes.

[swing music]

Steve McLaughlin: That’s fantastic to hear because so many of the great leaders. And we always hear these stories of, you know, that are not the 3.5 and the 3.75. Can you talk about the students that aren't the 3.75 or 3.5 in the student set from a grade standpoint or maybe just barely making it but have so much more to bring to the table and add and contribute? Can you talk about those students?

Joyelle Harris: Yes. These are the students who… their focus is not just on academics. They really are looking to throw themselves into research. They have side projects going on. The student who actually came to me to build the air purification project to serve his community in India, by far not a 3.75 student, because he is seriously looking at ionizers and combustion engines and moss to help his community. And he's in good academic standing. He'll have no problem getting a job, but his focus really is on, let me learn what I need to learn in my studies so that I can apply it to this work and this project and this impact, as opposed to, let me learn what I need to learn to ace the exam. And in his classes, I do talk to him about his courses. He gets the content and then he applies it. He may not always get 100 on the exam, but he gets the knowledge. And he's the type of student who is going to do something great in this world.

And I have many, many students like that. They really are taking courses because they want to learn the material. And sometimes that doesn't come across in the exam or in the grade. But when you talk to them, oh they’ve got it. They understand it. They're using it every day.

Steve McLaughlin: Well, I mean, whether you're a company or whether you're a parent or whether you're a leader, at the end of the day, those are the kinds of graduates we want in society. And so what have you learned or have you learned or help me help all of us be, you know, communicate that that's really what's most important. Getting good grades is important if you want to go to med school. We don't want to kind of dissuade that. But at the end of the day, sometimes grades are not the most important thing. What kind of advice would you give to parents or to companies or to the students? Grades aren't the most important thing. Help us. Help me as a parent. Help me as a professor or dean, because I think we want well-rounded students who really do care about making a difference and not just getting the grades.

Joyelle Harris: We do. I agree.

As a parent, I remind myself, and when I host recruiting sessions, I remind our parents: The student who only studies should have good grades, because all you do is study. However, companies want students with experience, which means you have to take some time to divide that focus. And students who are happy need other passions in their life outside of the classroom. And so to the parents, I want them to know a well-rounded student with a 3.0 is going to thrive and flourish more so than a 4.0 student who has a blank resume. After you get past that 4.0 line at the top, if there's nothing else of sustenance or value, that student is not going to thrive after graduating.

And to the students, I would like to say no one has asked me my GPA in a long time, maybe 20 years. I can't remember. The fact that I graduated is enough. The background check says, did you graduate from this school with this degree? And the answer is yes, and that is all that matters. So I was very happy for my 3.32 GPA. I was excited, very excited. I was able—I got into graduate school and lived happily ever after. I don't even know what my grad school GPA was, because at that point it just didn't matter anymore.

And I remember all of the sleepless nights that I stressed over grades as an undergrad. And I look back. I wish I could tell that “me” to go to sleep. Go to sleep, rest, and everything will be fine.

And for the companies, the companies that I deal with on a regular basis, they want a student who's in good academic standing. But I've actually had recruiters tell me that they scrutinize a 4.0 a lot more closely, because they're concerned, first, that the student doesn't understand what failure looks like. And in any corporate setting, you're going to fail. It's just part of the learning process. But then also, they want to know what else has that student done? Their GPA. And we do have 4.0 amazing students who are doing everything. I love them and appreciate them and would want to be them when I grow up. But for those students who are not that, a lot of corporations are completely happy and elated, because those students are doing so many more things to supplement and complement that GPA.

[“Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech”]