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Can Service Learning Impact Student Learning and Motivation in a Required Engineering Probability and Statistics Course?

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Viewpoints, Perspectives, and Creativity in Civil Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Abbie B Liel P.E. University of Colorado - Boulder

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Dr. Abbie B. Liel is an associate professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Timothy J Clarkin University of Colorado - Boulder

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Mr. Clarkin is pursuing a M.S. in Civil Systems Engineering at University of Colorado at Boulder, with a focus in Water Resources and a certificate in Engineering for Developing Communities. Eventually, he would like to work on water supply systems in water scarce regions and developing communities. Mr. Clarkin's degree is funded through the DoD SMART Scholarship program, sponsored by ASEE.

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There is a growing body of evidence showing that service learning can substantially improve student understanding and retention of quantitative concepts and technical skills that are the core of engineering curricula, as well as help students gain communication and leadership skills and more nuanced understandings of engineering ethics. However, service-learning modules have mostly been developed in freshman or capstone engineering classes that have a fairly broad scope of learning objectives. This paper describes the design and assessment of a service learning component in a required junior-level course in probability and statistics for engineering students, which typically enrolls 90-100 students. This course is ideal for service learning because students struggle with the material, complaining it is “too theoretical.” Yet, there are few examples of how to successfully integrate service learning ideas, including reflection activities, into a course that traditionally focuses heavily on quantitative fundamentals.

The service learning activities described in this paper were trialed in the Spring 2015 semester offering of a required probability and statistics course for civil engineers at a large public university, in partnership with the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. Participation in the service learning modules was optional, but replaced the second (of two) midterm exams. Students who chose to participate (about 20% of the class) were first asked to respond to a Likert-type survey asking for their views on service learning, engineers’ local and global responsibilities, and their personal efficacy in affecting change in the community. Students then volunteered for at least one eight-hour Habitat for Humanity workday in a local community that was severely affected by recent flooding. They were expected to complete three reflective assignments: (1) a journal entry written shortly after their volunteer day, (2) a report exploring a specific student-chosen application of probability and statistics to the activities of Habitat for Humanity, and (3) an in-class presentation.

Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with a number of students commenting that it was one of the best academic experiences of their university careers. The reports covered a range of issues that linked Habitat for Humanity to probability and statistics, including studies of injuries on construction job sites, volunteer participation and demographics, benefits of homeownership, flood prediction and flood plain definition, and a number of other topics. This paper also examines the service learning modules in terms of impact on student learning of probability and statistics, and their motivation to continue in civil engineering. This examination considers the student work produced, survey answers and comparisons of the group of students who chose to participate in the service learning with the rest of the class, showing that the service-learning neither diluted nor enhanced learning of the course's technical content. Recommendations are also made for future revisions to the design and management of the course.

Liel, A. B., & Clarkin, T. J. (2016, June), Can Service Learning Impact Student Learning and Motivation in a Required Engineering Probability and Statistics Course? Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26431

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