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Best Paper PIC III: Service-learning vs. Learning Service in First-year Engineering: If we cannot Conduct First-hand Service Projects, is it Still of Value?

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



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NEW THIS YEAR! - ASEE Main Plenary II: Best Paper Recognition & Industry Day Session: Corporate Member Council Speaker

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ASEE Board of Directors and Corporate Members Council

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25.255.1 - 25.255.31



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Susan F. Freeman Northeastern University

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AC 2011-1285: SERVICE-LEARNING VS. LEARNING SERVICE IN FIRST-YEAR ENGINEERING: IF WE CANNOT CONDUCT FIRST-HAND SER-VICE PROJECTS, IS IT STILL OF VALUE?Susan F Freeman, Northeastern University Susan Freeman, Stanley Forman, Beverly Jaeger, and Richard Whalen are members of Northeastern Uni- versity’s Gateway Team, a group of teaching faculty expressly devoted to the first-year Engineering Pro- gram at Northeastern University. The focus of this team is on providing a consistent, comprehensive, and constructive educational experience that endorses the student-centered and professionally-oriented mission of Northeastern University.Richard Whalen, Northeastern UniversityBeverly K Jaeger, Northeastern UniversityStanley M. Forman, Northeastern University c American Society for Engineering Education, 2011 Service-Learning vs. Learning Service in First-year Engineering: If We Cannot Conduct First-Hand Service Projects, is it Still of Value?AbstractThe literature and 10 to 15 years of practice at many universities have clearly demonstrated thatService Learning provides benefits to both the community and the students’ learning withincreased levels of social responsibility. 1,4,7,20 In the College of Engineering at NortheasternUniversity, the integration of service-learning projects in a first-year Introduction to EngineeringDesign course has been considered for a number of years. Implementation by first-year facultywould require coordination and development of nearly 160 projects involving multiplecommunity partners providing a wide range of services. Before embarking on this majorundertaking of first-hand service learning, the faculty developed major design projects withservice and humanitarian foci –referred to as service-oriented projects– for students to work onin teams. The research analyzes the change in students’ attitudes, and reveals that learningservice through selected project types has an impact similar to that of service learning. Resultsshow that there are some changes in attitudes and future planned activities after participation inthese projects, similar to those seen in hands-on service-learning environments. In addition,comparisons of students on non-service focused projects to those on actual service-learning orservice-oriented projects show they are significantly less affected in terms of concern for socialproblems or that non-profit work is a true venue for engineering work.Introduction and Background LiteratureService Learning and Service-Oriented Projects. Service learning as defined by the NationalService Learning Clearinghouse15 is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningfulcommunity service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civicresponsibility, and strengthen communities.” Building from this definition, we can identifyspecific elements of service learning which are identified in the book Service Learning:Engineering in your Community9 as possessing the following elements related to engineering: • Service: Service to an underserved area or people. This can be direct, and ongoing, or project-based, involve hands-on aspects or research and analysis. • Academic Content: A means to learn engineering principles more effectively, the service is linked to the course content and study requirements. • Partnerships and Reciprocity: involving students, faculty, the community and possibly companies, and when done well, all partners contribute to the work, receive benefits from the work and learn from the work. • Mutual Learning: Based on mutual respect, students learn from expertise and knowledge in the community partners, as the partners can learn about engineering and technology. Deeper levels of learning can be gained as they work together and impact each other. • Analysis and Reflection: This is a key component and vital to connecting the service to the academic content, in order to really gain the most benefit. This extends from relating the academic content to the service, the implications of the social context of the work, all the way to seeing the role of engineering in society.The learning benefits are also discussed in the book by Lima. “The connection to the communitycan provide motivation and a context. These have been cited as critical learning components bycognitive scientists who study how people learn.” 9 Learners are motivated by being able to seethe problems more clearly and the impact they may have as they solve these problems. Inaddition, many of the desired attributes of an engineer are developed through service-learningprojects, and many ABET outcomes can be mapped to results and tasks in these projects. Butmany of these same benefits are accomplished when students are involved in service-orientedprojects, even if these are not direct or experiential service-learning projects.As engineering educators, it is important to not only teach theory to our students but to alsopromote the notion that engineering provides an avenue to help others. We would like to developa sense of caring in our students and foster the idea that as engineers they have a real opportunityto make a difference in the lives of others. With these goals in mind, we often jump into theprocess of trying to integrate service-learning projects into a classroom only to realize later thatthe extra coordination and logistics required are extensive. In contrast to service learning, aservice-oriented project will possess virtually all of the same elements but without the need toactually interact with the community thus eliminating most of the challenges of coordination.Service Projects at Engineering Universities. In recent years, many have attempted to integrateprojects with the hopes of improving their class quality, student experiences, and retention rates.Large-scale programs have been set up such as the ROXIE project at Virginia Tech which pairedupwards of 87 community partners with 185 first-year design teams.10 Purdue Universityinstituted its EPICS program “Engineering Projects in Community Service” with 400 studentsforming 25 multidisciplinary teams.3 Colorado School of Mines also has an EPICS program,originally based on Purdue’s initiative.25 Cal Poly Pomona established an Engineering ServiceLearning Institute (ESLI) with NSF support to integrate service learning in the engineeringcurriculum and developed service projects such as a Voice Controlled Wheelchair and Devicesfor Developmentally Disabled.13 Faculty at the University of Michigan using several statisticaltests such as ANOVA, stepwise and multiple regression analysis showed that the overallresponse of students participating in a service-learning semester was significantly higher thanprevious non-service-learning semesters, indicating a higher sense of satisfaction with the courseand instructor.11 In a first-year hands-on engineering design class at the University of Coloradothey studied the effects of incorporating service learning into the class on first-to-second yearretention.16 Participation in this class appears to be improving year one to year two retention,although the authors state they were unable to see any clear statistical difference for the service-learning sections vs. total class data.In a discussion of student attitudes surrounding service learning and how projects may influencethese attitudes, it is interesting to see how different engineering schools present service-learningopportunities to their students and to see if they are at all tailored to engineering and to first-yearprograms. To gain insight into practices at major U.S. schools, a survey of school websites wasconducted, searching primarily for ‘service learning’ and then attempting to see what was beingdone and where. To narrow the list of survey schools, the survey was limited to programs offeredat the so-called ‘top’ engineering Universities. One arbiter of ‘top’ schools is the annual list fromU.S. News and World Report magazine of the Best Colleges in Engineering. The 2011 listconsists of MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, University of Illinois,University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, and Purdue University.23Of these ten, it appears that only Purdue has a formal program as mention previously, EPICS,aimed at involving first year engineering students in service-learning projects.18 Some 400students over 20 departments working in 25 teams participated in projects during the 2004academic year. To date, approximately 2000 students have had experiential learning through thePurdue program.The balance of the nine other schools has a variety of other methods and means to exposestudents to world service issues. It does not appear that any school has a targeted approach solelyfor first-year students. Nor do all the schools have organizations or service-learning coursesstrictly aimed at engineering education, at least not that were clear from their web sites. As manyof the schools are diverse university communities, the courses and projects tend bemultidisciplinary and non-engineering based. The methods at these schools range from specificstand-alone courses14,21 to schools that have designated ‘centers’ for service-based work.2,6,8,19,22The centers appear to be separate institutional organizations, often funded by major outsidedonors, that have permanent staff often interacting with community-based non-profit groups toeffect change. Students are then added to projects and are able to participate and learn throughthese community outreach endeavors.Half of the schools researched have alliances with non-profit organizations, although the schoolsdo not all have dedicated ‘centers’ as part of the overarching infrastructure. MIT started its ownnon-profit group as an outgrowth of an earlier set of course projects which grew into a sustainedexternal effort.14 Others have outreach into local existing groups and have partnered withthem.2,5,6,8 Cal Tech has an engineering-based course that has focused entirely on a community inGuatemala and is annually working on incremental community improvements in that dedicatedlocale.17The overview above indicates that the top ten schools are all engaged in service learning withvarying degrees of infrastructure and breadth. However, it appears that engagement of first-yearengineering students is not a focus of the greater majority of these programs.First-year Service Projects. Project selection in a first-year engineering design course is criticalto a successful outcome. Lund and Budny point out that a fundamental challenge in developing afulfilling and rewarding experience for each student is the identification of appropriatecommunity partners and projects.12 They note that their freshmen engineering students, with alimited skill set, have a tendency to select projects which are clearly marked as engineering-related, often resulting in unattainable goals leading to unhappy community partners anddiscouraged students.The fit for service or humanitarian-type projects and first-year engineering design courses hasbeen outlined and discussed in many places, including the text on engineering service learningauthored by Lima.9 One chapter in this textbook maps the engineering design method for servicelearning. The method outlined matches other design processes, with steps of problemidentification, developing specifications, concepts, details, implementation, and reflection andredesign; these match the design process used in our own first-year engineering design course.The project profiles also align with the projects we offer the students defined as service andhumanitarian projects. For example, the list of projects from the book and other literatureinclude environmental projects, along with other topics such as playgrounds, hospitals or clinicprojects, agricultural machinery and equipment for the disabled. The projects offered in ourcourse can be organized into similar categories; there are health-related projects, equipment forthird world countries such as water heaters, or stoves, emergency relief equipment, devices forchild safety, environmental projects such as river cleanup, and alternative power generation, andaids for disabled and handicapped such as mass transit access and vehicle assist devices. Theservice to humanity is clearly defined in all with only the major difference being the directcontact with the community they are serving (See Appendix C for complete list).In the College of Engineering at Northeastern University, the integration of service-learningprojects in a first-year Introduction to Engineering Design course has been under considerationfor a number of years. But with 500+ first-year students, the management and administration ofservice-learning projects seemed daunting in the absence of significant resources provided tosupport the effort. In order to be implemented, the first-year faculty would have to coordinateand develop upwards of 160 projects that would involve many community partners. To assessthe merits of such an undertaking, it was decided to first develop projects with a theme of havinga societal benefit; these would be design project topics with humanitarian and service focus,projects that have an impact in their local community, or even a further global impact.Some History of the Involved Course. More than ten years ago, as the first-year EngineeringDesign course was being developed and improved, the major design project continued to be akey element. This project was begun around 7 weeks into the semester, and projects chosen bythe majority of student groups were mostly product design based. The students followed thedesign process in teams, and designed on paper a product or process, with a final report andpresentation at the end of the semester. Example projects –which were primarily studentselected– were safety devices, improvements on products, sports devices, new products thestudents were interested in, or products that the students selected for personal interest or help.There were safety ladders, pet feeders, soccer ball returns, storage systems for dorm rooms,classroom redesign, and new alarm clocks.The instructors of the design course began to consider projects with more impact and that have alarger scope. They developed a list of humanitarian and service-based projects which has grownand been developed over the years. A current version is included in the Appendix C. The projectswere now all focused on helping others, either here in their own community or globally, such asimproving water conservation in agriculture, disaster relief, products for the disabled orhandicapped, environmental, green, or conservation projects, and child or personal safetyproducts. Students selected a project in teams from an instructor-provided list. Some classesworked on one topic only while others would have two groups working on the same topic oreven having many groups work on several different topics. The students seemed to be asenthusiastic about these projects as those previously self-selected and the project quality was ashigh as before, if not higher, as assessed by the instructors. The instructors saw better research,better development of alternatives and many well-designed solutions. It was time to assess theeffects that these projects have on our students.Motivation and Survey MethodAs noted, the literature and 10 to 15 years of practice at many universities have clearlydemonstrated that service learning provides benefits to both the community and the students’learning with increased levels of social responsibility.1,4,7,20 As stated in the reasons above,before committing to developing a service-learning program, it was decided to pilot theintegration of service-oriented projects first. The question, then, is do these projects affect thestudents’ in a ways similar to those of service learning? After working on these service-orientedprojects, do the students have a changed perspective on engineering that includes helping andserving others? To answer these questions, a pre- and post- project survey was given to all first-year engineering students to assess whether their focus had been impacted as a result of workingon and seeing presentations of engineering design in service-oriented projects.The dual-phase survey was entitled ‘Engineering in Society’, and was administered to more than500 first-year students in all Engineering Design classes. The pre-survey was given early in thesemester before the design projects were started (Appendix A). The first part of the pre-surveyassessed their familiarity with current events locally and globally, and the sources of theirinformation, along with basic demographics and selected majors in engineering. This wasfollowed by a series of questions on students’ knowledge of human needs, organizations, andservices. The bulk of the survey focused on identifying engineering roles such as: engineersproduce products, engineers help improve lives, design systems, work for non-profitorganizations. The post survey was given during the last week of classes after completion of thedesign project and was developed to measure the student’s changes in perceptions of engineeringin part on the basis of the project spectrum (Appendix B). Responses and statements that wereevaluated can be seen in the tables to follow.Survey Data and Analysis: Pre- and Post-Survey ResultsThe first step taken was a pre- and post-assessment in most sections of the course. Students weregiven a survey early in the semester (Appendix A) that focused on their perception of engineersin society and familiarity of human service organizations (n=512). The second survey (AppendixB) was given at the end of the course, with similar questions to reveal whether there had beenany shift in attitude (n=436). Here are selected results and discussion:Table 1. Familiarity with the following human services areas, 1=not familiar 5=very familiar Human services Before After Statistically significant? Housing Aid 2.27 2.63 Yes, p s disappearances are not noted immediately. Design a way to ensure that children cannot be missed. (31)  Individual Entertainment System for Hospitalized Children The Problem:  Many young patients stricken with childhood diseases must remain in isolation with little social contact amongst their peers and have no access to entertainment during this difficult time. The patients are required to spend many days in the hospital undergoing treatment. This project is to design a system that will furnish not only entertainment and educational stimulus for individual patients, but also will provide the essential social interactions that may help young patients stay connected to others as they recover.  (32) Child Front Seat Safety Measures In automobiles, many states do not require a children’s booster seat for passengers older than 5 years old or grater than 60 lbs, although pediatricians and other safety experts recommend minimums of 9 years of age and 90 lbs.  Your groups’ task is to design a means to protect a child who sits in the front seat of an automobile. The design should accommodate a young child (or a small adult) who is greater than 5 years of age and weighs more that 60 lbs.  Other Problems (33) Clean and Green Restroom Routine The Problem: Many public restrooms are adopting an even more health‐conscious approach for their users to avoid contact‐related diseases infections, and germs. This involves equipment and fixtures that facilitate clean routines in the lavatory areas. Practices to this effect involve water flow, soap dispensing, hand‐washing, hand drying, disposing of paper towels or tissues (in some cases), and contacting surfaces in the facility.  Considering the  ergonomics, movement of people, sanitation, customized and special needs, design a facility and its fixtures to address all these needs. While many parts exist to solve these problems, think about the smoothest flow and least amount of inconvenience, dripping, waste, mess, and contamination to generate a state‐of‐the art system to be installed that takes the facility engineering to a new level and considers the effectiveness and efficiency of the task, within a realistic budget. Your mission is delimited to the washing areas for a restroom that has 8 sinks in a space of about 80 Square feet with provisions for 2 ADA‐compliant width doorways.   (ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act)  (34)  Portis Family House Playground Design A small house in the Boston Area houses 7 families that have been reunited during recovery of a parent from drug or alcohol abuse.  In the yard of the housing area they have a small playground that is unsafe and needs to be redesigned.  The area is small and sloped with existing cement walkways, plus a number of existing obstructions and challenges.  It is also used for cookouts, outdoor meetings and gatherings.  There is a very small budget for the project. Problem Statement:  Design a playground/outdoor play area for Portis house families.  The users will be children ages 1‐18.  Pictures and dimensions of the existing area provided.   (35) Device for Preventing Voice Damage  Teachers, public speakers, singers, and other people who use their voices extensively and for a living often damage their voices and vocal cords over time and if not managed carefully.  This occurs for many reasons, but one is speaking louder than necessary.  Many times a speaker is using too much volume for the room.  Other problems are pitch, quality of tone, where the voice is being produced and amount of breath being used.  When vocal cords are damaged or being damaged, they also lose a smoothness of sound, that rough, scratchy forced sound replaces a smooth tone.  A speaker could benefit from a wearable device that provides feedback about the current state of the voice; volume, tone, pitch, other – to help them change their vocal use before more damage occurs.   Design a (possibly wearable) device that provides a voice professional (speaker, teacher, singer) with feedback on vocal quality to prevent vocal cord damage.   (36) Engineered Methods to Expand Capabilities of Service Dogs The Problem:  Service Dogs are trained to assist disabled individuals in order to help make them more independent in their homes and in society. These loving and intelligent creatures are trained extensively and have succeeded in serving as valuable attendants to their human companions. Many are able to open doors, retrieve items, and carry out a variety of other tasks such as leading their companions to the nearest empty seat, alerting their companions in urgent situations, etc. Conduct in‐depth associated research to propose, design, and develop a variety of engineered devices and adaptations that expand the capabilities of service dogs in terms enhancing the quality of life for their human companions in conducting activities of daily living inside and outside the home. 

Freeman, S. F. (2012, June), Best Paper PIC III: Service-learning vs. Learning Service in First-year Engineering: If we cannot Conduct First-hand Service Projects, is it Still of Value? Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21013

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