From fitness watches to pollution detectors, devices connected to the internet are everywhere – improving our quality of life but also consuming power, making e-waste and shaping our behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of.

Andrew Li, a University of Virginia third-year student double majoring in computer science and economics, earned a unique opportunity to dive into the global debate about what engineers call the “internet of things.”

Li is a co-author of the lead article, “Earth’s Electronic Skin,” in the most recent issue of The Environmental Forum, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute’s journal for its more than 2,300 members.

Li worked as an intern at the institute last summer as part of the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Policy Internship Program.

Li’s co-author is Kasantha Moodley, former senior manager of the institute’s Innovation Lab, where Li completed his internship.

The Innovation Lab team at the Environmental Law Institute focuses on the environmental implications of the digital economy and emerging technology.

Andrew Li portrait

Andrew Li is a University of Virginia third-year student double majoring in computer science and economics.

“With limited empirical research on the environmental costs of IoT, there can be no action taken by businesses, technology developers, or policymakers to ensure the responsible development and deployment of this technology,” Li and Moodley wrote in their journal article. The Network for the Digital Economy and Environment, an initiative of the Innovation Lab, “seeks to build a multidisciplinary coalition to produce research that will expand our understanding and encourage actions and policies that harness the benefits of IoT while mitigating its harms.”

Li wrote several papers related to the environmental impacts of new technologies for the Innovation Lab. These included a bibliographic analysis on artificial intelligence, which entailed combing publicly available publications to extract meaningful patterns, Li said.

“I used a lot of data analysis tools to collect, clean and analyze data, and I was really happy to be able to leverage some of my computer science background and mix that with research and writing experience,” Li said.

UVA Engineering’s highly regarded Policy Internship Program, now in its 21st year, combines coursework focused on communications and policy analysis skills with hands-on internships alongside high-level science and technology policymakers in Washington, D.C. The goal is to encourage today’s science and engineering leaders-in-training to explore careers in public service and policymaking.

Each summer the program places up to 12 students, and, to date, more than 175 students have completed invaluable internships with government entities such as congressional offices, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, European diplomatic agencies, the World Bank, and many think tanks and nonprofits.

Li, who is interested in social and economic issues arising from the interaction between law and technology, said the opportunity to work with people of non-technical backgrounds within a policy environment was the most valuable part of the Policy Internship Program.

“Learning how to effectively communicate and explain complex technology allowed me to make the most of my unique perspective and skillset as an engineer,” he said. “I feel that my experience over the summer prepared me greatly for a future career beyond purely technical work.”

Li’s experience demonstrates how, as participants in UVA’s Policy Internship Program, students can bring their engineering education to bear on complex public policies, said Rider Foley, director of the program and associate professor of science, technology and society in the Department of Engineering and Society.

“While not every intern’s work is published, many contribute in substantive ways to the organizations they work with during the summer,” Foley said. “Andrew’s internship offered him a wonderful opportunity to explore meaningful questions about the internet of things and to contribute to the public dialogue on the topic. Past interns have contributed to drafts of federal policy, memos and other publications.

“Students in this program are training for the future, but many also are influencing the here and now.”