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The turn of any political administration is prone to much discussion and debate—when a government changes hands, many of its inner workings are revealed and scrutinized in great detail. What better time could there be, for an intern in the Washington DC political sphere, to gain practical experience than at the turn of an administration?

Two of our undergraduates recently had the opportunity to utilize their engineering skills in this uniquely significant political setting. Drew DeLong and Tyler Kohman, who are both seniors in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), received internships in Washington DC during the spring 2017 semester. These internships, both of which took place in the U.S. House of Representatives, were established through Carnegie Mellon University’s Washington Semester Program (CMU/WSP), offered by the Dietrich College Institute for Politics and Strategy.

Tyler Kohman behind podium at the Pentagon

Source: Tyler Kohman

Tyler Kohman stands behind the podium at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

Kohman, who is double majoring in engineering and public policy (EPP), spent the first half of his internship with the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), and spent the second half of his internship working directly with Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania’s 9th District, the chairman of the T&I Committee. While Kohman was with the Committee, he designed analytical tools to compile committee records, photographed congressional hearings, and attended hearings and briefings for research on subjects such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) modernization, super-sonic flight, autonomous vehicle implementation, and other infrastructure funding methods and policy.

“My career ambitions are to work on the qualitative side of engineering,” says Kohman, “specifically on integrating emerging transportation technologies into existing infrastructure and developing policy that creates a safe, efficient, and seamless environment for all modes of transportation, from vehicles, airplanes, and boats, to pedestrian, bicycle, and public transportation.”

DeLong’s internship took place in the office of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, which is located within the Capitol Building itself. DeLong spent much of his internship attending congressional hearings on technical topics such as infrastructure and clean water technology, as well as giving guest speakers tours of the Capitol Building, including the balcony that looks out over the National Mall. DeLong notes that he was able to attend some extremely significant events during his internship: for example, he was working in the Capitol Building the night of the State of the Union address, and he was able to attend the second hearing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Delong in front of Washington Monument

Source: Drew DeLong

Drew DeLong stands in front of the National Mall and the Washington Monument in Washington, DC.

“The number one thing that having the CEE undergrad in that space gives, is a strong foundation into the policy,” says DeLong. “Having an undergraduate in civil engineering really provided a strong foundation and insight into the basic principles of what goes into the types of infrastructure projects they spoke about. You have a different foundation going into the Hill, and working on the Hill, having a civil engineering degree: a very logical, structured undergraduate experience fueled by what we learn at Carnegie Mellon—the problems, the tests, the design classes—and how you approach problems.”

Kohman agrees that his CEE foundation gave him a different perspective coming into this political atmosphere.

“The methodical problem-solving component of my engineering education helped me navigate my internship and studies in DC,” says Kohman. “I was able to methodically work on policy because that’s more how my brain is oriented as an engineer. The problem-solving skills that engineering teaches helped a lot, since most policy is identifying the reason a problem is happening and designing a solution for it—instead of equations and concrete, it’s words and funding.”

Both DeLong’s and Kohman’s experiences in Washington DC were so positive that they decided to continue their involvement in politics. Kohman has teamed up with Congressman Bruce Westerman of Arkansas’s 4th District to create a new internship program designed to recruit more engineers to Capitol Hill, and DeLong hopes to return to Washington DC for additional internships in the future.