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Taking Play Seriously

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 play—really play—dollhouse with another child.

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 resourcefulness—the notion of how you solve open-ended problems—were lacking.

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 attention.

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 presentations.

Once the project is approved and underway, the student team follows up by training the partner, gathering feedback, and making revisions.

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 knowledge—that'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.”


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 lab—in some ways, a sandbox—that 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 things—anything 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


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