PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9
MAY I HELP YOU? - More and more, engineering schools are looking to service learning as a way to prepare students for the challenges of the real world. - By Jeffrey Selingo - Illustration by Devon Bowman

The classic image of an engineer has always been that of a quiet man, most times with glasses and a pocket protector, tucked away in a corner, furiously working on a design for a new bridge or electrical system. But the modern version of how engineers actually work, of course, is completely different: They often operate in teams, with engineers and non-engineers alike, collaborating on projects and communicating regularly with clients.

This new model was recognized by engineering educators in 2000, when they put in place updated accreditation standards that called for students not only to have a background in mathematics and science but also to have the skills to effectively communicate in a group and work with colleagues from across academic disciplines. In other words, future engineers had to learn in much the same way that they would eventually have to work in the real world.

Putting those statements into accreditation standards was the easy part. Figuring out how to squeeze more requirements for undergraduate engineering majors into an already-packed curriculum would turn out to be a challenge. To be sure, most engineering students had professional internships at some point during their college careers, and many institutions required a project as part of a capstone course. But each of those experiences had its limits. Internships were for a short amount of time and rarely enabled even those students who were given the opportunity to apply their skills a chance to see a project from start to finish. And the assignments in senior-level courses never brought students in contact with real-life clients. Something more was needed.

The answer: service learning. The concept is simple. Working in a team, undergraduates learn real-world skills by defining, designing, building and testing engineering solutions that assist local nonprofit community organizations and sometimes government agencies. Service learning in engineering has proved to be a win-win situation for both sides of the equation. The students learn the additional “soft” skills they need for their careers—teamwork, communication, project management and customer service. Meanwhile, the community groups get the technical expertise that they need but for which they lack the staff and funds.

With service learning, “students see engineering as more than just a set of math problems,” says William C. Oakes, an associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University. “They see it as a means to change people’s lives, see career paths they didn’t see before in nonprofits, and the compelling nature of the projects helps students take more risks than they would have otherwise.”

Oakes also serves as interim director of Purdue’s service-learning program, Engineering Projects in Community Service. Known by its acronym EPICS, it was started at Purdue in 1995 and since then has enrolled more than 2,000 students. With support from the National Science Foundation and several corporations, the model has expanded to 15 other universities today, including Butler, Columbia and Pennsylvania State University, among others. While EPICS is the most recognized service-learning model in engineering, it is not the only one. Indeed, a growing number of engineering departments now require service learning as part of the curriculum or at least offer it as an elective.

Popular with Women

Besides its ability to meet accreditation standards by teaching teamwork and communication skills, one of the biggest reasons that service learning is expanding is that engineering educators are beginning to see a key side benefit to the programs: They are popular with women, a group typically not drawn to engineering.

At Purdue, for instance, female mechanical engineering majors, as well as those in electrical and computer engineering, accounted for 20 percent of the students in EPICS over a five-year period while they made up only about 11 percent of the students in those majors. In the first three years of EPICS, when one-fifth of the students in the program were women, they were nearly one-third of the team leaders. Other universities report similar successes with attracting women and, to a similar extent, minority students. As a result, many highlight their service-learning programs in recruiting materials.

Why does service learning do well in enrolling a group of students that so many other efforts have failed to engage? “The explanation,” says Valerie Leppert, associate professor of engineering at the University of California at Merced, “is that it shows the human side of engineering. In other words, they get to see how people in the community are benefiting from the engineering services they provide.”

Leppert directs the EPICS program at the Merced campus, which opened last fall and is the first new American research university in the 21st century. That gave the nascent engineering school a chance to build a curriculum from the ground up, free of all the requirements that develop over time at other universities and often inhibit new programs like service learning from gaining a foothold. Privately, some engineering professors say they fear that making service learning a requirement will take away from the time undergraduates have to devote to other endeavors, namely helping out with research or participating in other departmental activities. What’s more, faculty members are often tapped to serve as advisers on service-learning projects.

“The goals of service learning are admirable, but we have to remember that engineering students are already among the busiest on campus,” says an engineering professor at a Midwestern public university who requested anonymity. “It’s becoming a strain on our resources.”

Merced doesn’t face that problem, at least not yet. Every engineering student there is required to take one unit of service learning or a freshman seminar in order to graduate. Some majors, like bioengineering and material science, require six or seven units for graduation. This semester, 60 students at UC-Merced are on seven different teams serving seven community partners. The plan, Leppert says, is to add seven new teams a year.

One team is working this semester with A Woman’s Place, an organization in Merced County that provides assistance to battered women and victims of sexual violence. The student group is revamping a computer network and creating a statistical database to help the agency with its reporting requirements. The engineering majors even go through the same training that other volunteers at A Woman’s Place undergo.

One member of the team, Chris Butler, a junior engineering major at UC-Merced, says the experience working with A Woman’s Place last fall encouraged him to return this spring even though he had already fulfilled his graduation requirement. “It’s one of the most demanding classes in terms of time, but it’s the best thing I’ve done here,” he says. “It’s a real-life engineering project in a real-world situation.”

The real world is mirrored in other ways as well. At a few universities, the teams are “vertically integrated,” meaning they include everyone from freshmen to seniors, giving students a flavor for a diverse workforce where their colleagues may be recent graduates or people nearing retirement. The teams typically tackle large-scale projects that span several semesters, allowing students to assume different roles on the team and bring in fresh perspectives with new students. It also means that not all problems posed by community partners are solved immediately.

Take the Henry Viscardi School, a Long Island institution that serves students with severe physical and medical disabilities. A team from Columbia University’s engineering school, where service learning is required for all freshmen, is now in its third semester working on finding ways to make lockers at the high school more accessible. The shelves, for instance, are too high and deep for students in wheelchairs and those with motor-skill problems have trouble operating the locking mechanism.

While the students on Columbia’s team typically change from semester to semester after they finish their requirement, each group attempts to build on the successes and failures of the previous team. Past groups have tried coming up with small changes to the lockers, while this semester’s team is looking at a total redesign.

More than 2,000 students are participating in service learning at Purdue in projects such as designing and building a racing display at a local museum.  Bottom photo: Youngsters at the museum learn about the powerful force of magnetic fields as they race their cars against each other.

Christine Pawelski, who works with the Columbia students at the Henry Viscardi School, is delighted to have the assistance on the lockers, as well as on other projects, since the school has neither the technical expertise nor the money to do the tasks itself. But she says Columbia’s one-semester requirement has its drawbacks. “Most of these projects are pretty complicated,” Pawelski says. “You’ve got brand-new engineering students who are learning to work in teams. By the time you’ve gotten to the end of the semester, you’re nowhere close to a prototype.”

Working with college freshmen, Pawelski adds, has been a learning experience. “They are young students who have limited exposure in dealing with a client,” she says. “They have high technical skills, but on the feedback form, we always give the lowest scores on communication.” Even so, Pawelski says school officials plan to continue the partnership because as educators they understand the value of learning and the ideas that the students have come up with “have made us think in different ways.”

Columbia’s decision to make service learning a requirement only for first-year students is rooted in its long-held desire to give freshmen experience in engineering design, says Jack McGourty, an associate dean at Columbia’s engineering school. In terms of creativity, he says, younger students are sometimes better than upperclassmen, who are occasionally stymied by their technical knowledge. “Are they going to do structural analysis? No,” McGourty says of freshmen. “But they can do marketing, competitive analysis, economic analysis and some analysis around ergonomics.”

Giving students a taste of service learning early on has also helped Columbia’s recruitment of women and minorities and has improved its retention of engineering students overall, according to McGourty. In the past five years, the percentage of female engineering students has grown from 21 percent to 29 percent. The percentage of black and Hispanic students has increased as well, 57 percent and 100 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of engineering students who apply for transfer internally from engineering to liberal arts has dropped by more than 60 percent.

“While several causal factors may account for these results,” McGourty says, “we believe that the introduction of our service-learning efforts has contributed significantly.”

Everyone Wins

Engineering schools and community groups are not the only ones reaping the benefits of the growth in service learning. Employers are seeing a payback, too, in the engineering graduates they hire. The fact of the matter is that these days, engineers work in teams across time zones, solving complex problems presented by clients. While engineering educators have long sought to replicate that experience in the classroom, “students know it’s fabricated,” says Rob Reed, a program manager at Hewlett-Packard.

When students work in groups in the classroom, they are rarely given a grade that reflects how well they get along with their peers, Reed says. But in service learning, the success of the entire project depends on teamwork. What’s more, when students know they are producing a project for more than just a grade—in the case of service learning, a real client—they tend to take it more seriously.

In recruiting students for jobs, employers want to know what drives potential employees, Reed says. Often, students who went through a service-learning project will discuss their experience. “Their ability to speak eloquently about that service-learning project is the single biggest differentiator in the interview,” Reed says.

But that message has yet to reach every engineering student, says Oakes, the interim director of Purdue’s service-learning program. “Some of the students have the perception that service learning is not for the best students,” he says. The top students “think they should be doing undergraduate research or traditional projects.”

Engineering students at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell participate in a number of service-learning projects, including designing computer equipment to help children with motor disabilities (above left) and an innovative wheelchair that can change seat heights (lower left). Other students travel abroad to deliver electricity to small villages in Peru (right, top and bottom).

Don’t count Joseph Tice in that group. A senior electrical engineering major at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Tice is part of a five-person service-learning team working with a local rehabilitation center on making several components in a hospital room voice-activated, including the telephone, television, door, curtains and lights. “We’re finally applying a lot of things we learned in theory in class,” Tice says. “And the best part is that we’re going to make a product that is going to help someone.”

The engineering school at UMass-Lowell is aiming to offer students in all five undergraduate programs at least one class per semester with a service-learning component. “We’re very close to that goal,” explains John Duffy, a professor of mechanical engineering. Some programs, like civil engineering, he says, lend themselves to service learning, while others, like chemical, are more difficult when it comes to finding projects and community partners.

In infusing service learning across the engineering curriculum, UMass-Lowell officials have been careful not to place too many additional demands on students or faculty members. Unlike many other schools, Lowell is adding service learning to core and required courses because students have little room in their schedules to add a class dedicated to service learning. “We’re trying to not add more time but change the nature of the work,” Duffy says. “We try to replace what would have been a paper exercise with a real problem.”

With few complaints, Duffy says 40 of the school’s 70 faculty members have incorporated service-learning projects into their courses this year, up from just three professors two years ago. With help from an NSF grant, the engineering school recently hired a full-time service-learning coordinator to locate community groups and set up assignments.

“When you add service learning, you’re also increasing the academic content of the course—in our case, engineering design,” Duffy says. “This is not all about just doing good for the community.”

Still, Duffy says that service-learning projects have opened up new career options for students who would have otherwise never known about job opportunities with nonprofit groups. And the organizations themselves say that their already-long list of needs would only grow if not for the engineering students.

“They’re a lifeline,” David Frick says of the students. Frick is operations manager of the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, where Purdue engineering students have designed environmental monitors for temperature and humidity and proximity sensors to ensure that patrons do not get to too close to the artwork. The latest team is working on a security camera system.

“We depend on volunteers, and we usually don’t get people coming in off the street telling us they want to design environmental monitors,” Frick says. “The students fill that role. But more than that, it connects them and the university to the surrounding community in a very critical way.”

Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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