A service-learning program that got its start at Purdue
University helps local residents in many ways, including designing
special toys for disabled children.
By Linda Creighton
In a large playroom of the Children's Clinic at
Wabash Center in Lafayette, Indiana, a small girl with cerebral palsy
peers intently into the kitchen of a dollhouse. Another child, without
disability, walks a doll figure into the kitchen and pretends to fix
dinner, her small hands effortlessly performing tasks the little girl
with cerebral palsy cannot begin to master. But when the doll figure
is walked over to the refrigerator and tries to open the door, the
disabled child puts her hand on a large colored button and presses
down. Suddenly, the refrigerator door pops open, and with it the chance
for a little girl to playreally playdollhouse with another
Electrical engineering, computer interfacing and programming,
and mechanical design are all taking place in this brightly decorated
playroom. But the little girl doesn't know anything about engineering
or that there's a special program at Purdue University for bringing
those big concepts down to dollhouse size, just for children like her.
All she knows is that she's having fun.
This service-learning program started in 1995 when Ed
Coyle and Leah Jamieson, both professors at Purdue University in Lafayette,
Indiana, got together every couple of weeks with colleagues to brainstorm
about improving undergraduate education. Both Jamieson and Coyle were
getting more and more feedback from alumnae, media, and employers that
students were graduating with strong technical foundations, but that
building blocks like teamwork, communication, customer awareness, and
resourcefulnessthe notion of how you solve open-ended problemswere
Out of those discussions came some ideas for a revised
curriculum: A design course that stressed problem solving at every
step, deploying and supporting systems that would enable students to
stick with a project over a period of time. Professor Jamieson, Ransburg
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says now, The
piece of the puzzle that was missing was simply: Where do you find
the projects that are so compelling that they would be worth working
on for a few years and that would also hold students' attention?
There were few local industries to which Purdue could
turn, and it was unlikely those companies would work on the same timetable
as students in an academic year.
As luck would have it, there was a request for proposals
from the U.S. Department of Education for a program aimed at encouraging
students to be involved in the community. It was like a light
bulb, it just clicked,'' says Jamieson, seeing the potential
for students solving problems that the local community had neither
the funds nor resources to address. She and Coyle started talking to
people in Lafayette, in particular the United Way agencies, and got
an amazing reaction. In a very short time 18 letters of endorsement
from community agencies went out in support of the grant, nailing it. It
was fantastic, Jamieson says.
From that grant was born EPICS, Engineering Projects
in Community Service, a program enabling teams of undergraduates to
earn academic credit for multiyear, multidisciplinary projects that
solve engineering and technology-based problems for community service
and education organizations.
Jamieson and Coyle's invention currently involves
20 different departments, 300 students, and 24 teams at Purdue, and
over 900 students on 75 teams at 10 U.S. universities. Projects range
from technology for disabled children to homelessness prevention and
environmental protection. Jamieson says she hopes to see the size of
the program at Purdue double in the next three to five years and by
2010 to include 1,200 student- and 100 different community-outreach
teams, with similar growth at other universities.
Corporate sponsors include Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard,
the 3M Foundation, General Motors, and Boeing, among others.
Typically, each EPICS team of eight to 20 undergraduates
attends weekly two-hour meetings to work on project administration,
project planning, or the project itself. There are also weekly lectures
by guest speakers on topics useful to the community-oriented program.
Students are recruited from various engineering disciplines
through academic counselors, class discussions, and on-campus advertising.
Juniors and seniors often tackle the technical challenges of the projects,
with sophomores and freshmen serving as active understudies, taking
over the reins as they gain experience and expertise. This kind of
vertical integration and long-term participation means that projects
requiring a longer commitment than a semester or two get sustained
The community partners are actively engaged as well,
receiving and reviewing a prototype of the service or project, and
giving formal, concrete feedback. The length of the initial evaluation
phase is determined by the needs of the community partner and the problem,
and includes written progress reports, periodic design reviews, and
Once the project is approved and underway, the student
team follows up by training the partner, gathering feedback, and making
The benefit to the community is obvious and often dramatic.
A wetlands construction project by students kept downstream water in
a community clean after a farm manure line ruptured. A database created
by EPICS links and tracks services for the homeless in Lafayette for
the first time. And any visitor to the Children's Clinic at Wabash
Center would rate the program a success after seeing the scores of
children who use its facilities each month able to master and play
with specially designed toys.
But the give-and-take is a two-way street, with students
benefiting in more ways than simply academic.
Kris Ziller, director of Children's Services at
the Wabash Center, says, It's a win-win thing. Taking engineering
kids who might have a narrow focus and really making them aware of
how they can help other kids with their knowledgethat's
a very cool thing. Ziller remembers one male student in particular,
shy and withdrawn, who was at first very intimidated by the children
in the clinic. He helped in constructing Dump Truck City, a large play
track where a remote-controlled dump truck performs the endlessly absorbing
tasks of driving and dumping dirt. When two boys severely disabled
with cerebral palsy found themselves for the first time able to push
trucks around a work site, their exuberance and sheer joy pulled the
student into play, a bonding experience that Ziller says forever
changes the way they all look at the world.
OVERCOMING THE HURDLES
Early on, says Jamieson, it became clear that real-world problems
are not solved within one discipline. We've been able to
create the course structures for multidisciplinary programs, but multidisciplinary
projects and teams have a lot of challenges, she observes. Students
come with different vocabularies and different assumptions about who
knows what, and different expectations about how you do things and
how you solve problems. That's something we're continuing
to learn about.
Jamieson says the biggest challenges that she and Coyle have faced
have been on the academic side. A course that involves freshmen
through seniors, taken for potentially several years and including
students from as many as 20 different departments is not the same as
a three-credit, one-semester course,'' Jamieson says. Simply
setting up the curriculum structure has taken some work.
One of the first hurdles was deciding exactly what a lab for the program
would look like. The projects would be defined by the community on
an ad-hoc basis, says Jamieson. How do you create a labin
some ways, a sandboxthat lets you build almost anything without
knowing in advance what that is?
The other big challenge was determining how to manage projects that
don't start at the beginning of a semester and don't end
when the semester is over? That happens in the real world and in design
environments, but it doesn't happen very often in the undergraduate
world. Because students are building things, they have to be able to
buy thingsanything from gears or welding to sheet metal cut to
a specific certification. Having students say, Here's
what we need for our projects; let's go buy them,' is not
what universities typically do, says Jamieson.
Both Jamieson and Coyle point out that the program can work in almost
any university, not only a large one like Purdue. At Butler University,
on the north side of Indianapolis, for instance, a very successful
EPICS program has been initiated that runs mainly in the computer science
and software engineering department. The size of the school is not
a factor, Jamieson insists. What you're looking for are
students and the willingness of the faculty and the university to say OK,
we'll do the curricular things to make this work.'
Nor is size or the urban nature of the community a limiting factor.
Jamieson says that an initial question they addressed setting up EPICS
at Purdue was whether the problems in the Lafayette area, population
about 120,000, were sufficiently entrenched to warrant this type of
solution. The problems are not really obvious sometimes, she
says, but there are just dozens and dozens of ways in which the
students can still be helping the community.
The response to Purdue's EPICS program has been overwhelmingly
positive. Students who take part usually return for subsequent semesters.
The program sustains a 78 percent retention rate. Participating students
from nine successive semesters gave it an overall grade of 84 percent,
mostly for improving communication skills, bolstering the ability to
work together as a team, and giving them, as future engineers, an increased
awareness of the customer.
The community partner organizations are just as enthusiastic. In the
first six years of the Purdue program, EPICS teams delivered more than
100 projects, with all the community organizations expressing satisfaction
with the teams and the projects.
EPICS, in its integration of learning and community service, underscores
what many engineering teachers say is a fundamental part of an engineering
education: The ability to teach the discipline while teaching how that
discipline benefits the greater good. This is the right thing
to be doing for our students and an important thing for Purdue to be
giving to its community, Jamieson says.
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in the Washington,
D.C., area. She can be reached at email@example.com.