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June 2006

Wave of the Future: Service Learning in Engineering

By Barton Reppert

IEEE President-Elect Leah Jamieson sees a "huge opportunity" for the IEEE and other engineering professional organizations to contribute more toward the wider development of "service learning" programs at college and university engineering schools.

According to Jamieson, service learning is defined as "a method of teaching, learning and reflecting that ties community service with academic learning outcomes in the discipline, and is built upon the principle of reciprocity."
Jamieson, interim dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., was lead-off speaker at a National Conference on Service Learning in Engineering. The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored the  conference, held 24-25 May at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C.

"I would say that one of the most significant things was that this was the first time that people from the many different communities of engineering service learning came together," Jamieson said, in a telephone interview following the conference. "Twenty or even five years ago, you really couldn't have imagined any meaningful gathering of engineers who were involved with service learning, because there simply were fewer programs, and fewer people making connections between those various communities."

At Purdue, Jamieson co-founded Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS). Established in fall 1995, the program has since served as a model for comparable EPICS programs at 14 other institutions, including Iowa State University, University of Notre Dame, Butler University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California-Merced, University of California-San Diego, Columbia University, Pennsylvania State University, Case Western Reserve University, San Jose State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

In February 2005, the National Academy of Engineering honored the Purdue EPICS program with the prestigious Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.

Another speaker at the conference last month, Martin C. Jischke, president of Purdue University, told the gathering that "I'm one of those who believes that EPICS is a program whose full impact on the lives of our students and not just at Purdue will be quite substantial. It will be profound in that these students whose careers are going to be affected are going to have a big impact long after they leave the university."

Sue Kemnitzer, deputy director for engineering education and centers at the National Science Foundation, said the NSF funds EPICS and similar service learning programs through its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program, budgeted at about $25 million for the current fiscal year. "We're very open to people suggesting service learning as a technique to use to attract and retain students," she said.

Asked about particularly worthwhile and significant projects in service learning that have electrical engineering students have pursued, Kemnitzer said: "Oftentimes it's a situation where you are combining mechanical and electrical systems to get some beneficial result. In the environmental area, there are several projects I can think of that involve deploying sensors and then getting signals back."

Kemnitzer said that while some major, high-tech companies, such as Microsoft, National Instruments and Hewlett-Packard have supported engineering service learning programs by donating equipment and/or software, she would like to see the IEEE and other engineering associations have greater involvement.

"It would be very productive to get more regular members of professional societies involved, for a couple of reasons," she said. "One, they probably want to do some volunteer work using their expertise. Second, the student teams often need the advice and mentoring of professional engineers who really know best practice."

IEEE President-Elect Jamieson said she estimates that at least 100 colleges and universities have some type of service learning in engineering including campuses where chapters of Engineers Without Borders and Engineers for a Sustainable World are active.

The United Engineering Foundation, of which the IEEE is one of five founder societies, contributed $25,000 to Engineers Without Borders-USA's tsunami relief efforts in February 2005, to aid efforts to rebuild village schools and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka decimated by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Asked whether the IEEE has been doing enough to encourage and support service learning programs, Jamieson responded: "This is not an area where the IEEE has been [very] active. I think it's a huge opportunity for the IEEE and for other professional organizations. Among the professional societies, civil engineering has been the most active."

Jamieson, who takes office in January 2007, added: "I think there are discussions going on in the IEEE about how to connect the IEEE's fields of interest, and the impact it has in the world, including the potential impact in community service and addressing global challenges. I think that's a topic that we're going to hear more about."

She said other worthwhile projects engineering students have pursued as part of service learning programs have included developing data management systems for social service agencies, such as Habitat for Humanity.

Looking ahead to her IEEE leadership duties, Jamieson said she has been giving serious thought to questions such as: "What are careers going to look like in five to 20 years from now? How are people going to be prepared for those careers? How do most engineering faculty, students and professional societies reflect how global engineering is becoming? How do you break down barriers between IEEE groups, and how do you break down barriers between university departments? How do you identify emerging technologies, and what do you do to foster them?




Barton Reppert is a freelance science and technology writer specializing in S&T policy coverage. He previously worked for 18 years as a reporter and editor with The Associated Press in Washington, New York, and Moscow. He can be reached at barton.reppert@verizon.net. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2007 IEEE