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A Qualitative Study to Assess the Learning Outcomes of a Civil Engineering Service-Learning Project in Bolivia

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Global Perspective and Experiential Learning in Civil Engineering

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.94.1 - 24.94.12



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Paper Authors


Ann E. Jeffers University of Michigan

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Dr. Jeffers is an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. Her research lies at the intersection between the fire sciences and structural engineering disciplines, and specifically seeks to establish novel computational methods that bridge the domains of fire science, heat transfer, and structural mechanics. She currently serves on the ASCE Fire Protection Committee and the SFPE Standards Making Committee on the Predicting the Thermal Performance of Fire Resistive Assemblies.

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Paul A. Beata University of Michigan

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I am a second-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Ann Jeffers in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. My research is in structural fire engineering and focuses on improving finite element analysis procedures in this field. I am an active member of the University of Michigan chapter of ASEE.

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Beverly Ilse Strassmann University of Michigan

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Professor of anthropology and director of a longitudinal study of human biology among the Dogon of Mali.

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A Qualitative Study to Assess the Learning Outcomes of a Civil Engineering Service Learning Project in BoliviaSeveral universities have recently implemented service learning programs in engineering toaddress shortcomings of traditional engineering classes [1]. By definition, service learning is apedagogical practice that emphasizes experiential learning through structured community service[2]. Service learning produces a symbiotic relationship between the academic institution and thecommunity by providing learning experiences for students while satisfying a real need within thecommunity. Reflection is a key component of service learning because it instills a deeperunderstanding and awareness of the global and social context in which the project is carried out[1]. Thus, service learning naturally addresses an existing gap in traditional engineeringpedagogies by requiring students to develop an awareness of the impact that engineering has onsociety and beyond. In addition, a well-formulated service learning project may also satisfyeducational objectives related to technical competency, creativity, communication, andteamwork.To better understand the learning outcomes of engineering service learning projects carried outin an international setting, we performed an exploratory study to assess the learning outcomes ofa student-led project involving the design and construction of a pedestrian bridge in a village inrural Bolivia. In 2013, a team of five university students traveled to Bolivia to complete theconstruction of the bridge. During their four-week stay in Bolivia, the students were asked tokeep reflective journals that were guided by a series of weekly writing prompts. We consideredthe following research questions in the study: To what degree did the project advance the students’ mastery of technical concepts? How did complexities (e.g., linguistics, local construction practices, diverse social and cultural environment) related to the site affect students’ perceptions of engineering design/construction, particularly within a global and social context? How did the experience affect the students’ confidence in tackling unpredictable and ill- posed engineering problems? How did the project affect the students’ abilities to function in multidisciplinary teams? What communication skills were strengthened as a result of the project?We analyzed the writing prompts within a phenomenological framework [3], allowing commonthemes to be identified from the students’ responses. The data suggests that the designexperience stretched the students’ abilities to communicate effectively across cultural andlinguistic barriers and also strengthened the students’ abilities to work effectively as a team.There were multiple issues that arose in the field that required deviations from the original bridgedesign, forcing the students to make important engineering decisions “on the fly.” The hands-onnature of the project gave students a newfound appreciation for scale as well as practicalexperience using surveying equipment, mixing and pouring concrete, working with power tools,and using safety harnesses. Additionally, students reported a fresh appreciation for civilinfrastructure and a meaningful understanding of the ways in which civil engineering can be usedto benefit society at a global scale. The paper will present a more detailed analysis of thequalitative data and will offer implications for others wishing to adapt our work.References[1] Tsang, E. (Ed.). (2007). Projects that Matter: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Engineering. American Association for Higher Education’s Series on Service Learning in the Disciplines, Stylus Publishing LLC, Sterling, VA.[2] Jacoby, Barbara and Associates (1996). Service Learning in Higher Education Concepts and Practices, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.[3] Borrego, M., Douglas, E.P., and Amelink, C.T. (2009). “Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Research Methods in Engineering Education,” Journal of Engineering Education, 98, 53-66.

Jeffers, A. E., & Beata, P. A., & Strassmann, B. I. (2014, June), A Qualitative Study to Assess the Learning Outcomes of a Civil Engineering Service-Learning Project in Bolivia Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--19986

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