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Engineering Service Learning Program Offers Hands-on Education, Benefits Area Nonprofits

November 11, 2004

MERCED — Engineering, by definition, is science applied to solve practical problems and improve people's lives. Faculty members at the University of California, Merced, are building engineering programs with a built-in, hands-on element to prepare students to practice real engineering.

The Engineering Service Learning Program brings teams of undergraduate students together with nonprofit organizations in the community. The students determine, analyze and then meet each organization's engineering needs using the same process they will follow in their professional careers. The program has previously been established at Purdue University, but UC Merced is the first school to bring it to the western United States.

“The service learning program is an integral part of engineering education at UC Merced,” said Dean of Engineering Jeff Wright. “This program will instill in our students stronger engineering design skills, extensive leadership and management experiences, and remarkable professional relationships. Most important, it will help keep our students engaged and focused on their educational goals.”

UC Merced has already brought one service learning team project to a successful conclusion. A group of engineering students from Merced College and other California institutions who were home in the Merced area over the summer banded together to create a kinetic display demonstrating the laws of physics for the Castle Science and Technology Center. A ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the completion of the device will be held this Saturday, November 13, at 12:30 p.m. at the center.

Every service learning team will have a faculty member to help them make needed connections and guide them through the client service process, and the first team was no exception. Assistant professor Valerie Leppert mentored the pioneering team and continues to play a primary role in developing the Engineering Service Learning Program.

“Industry leaders like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others have expressed support for the ideas behind service learning because they want to hire students with hands-on experience,” Leppert said. “Service learning also reaches out to women and minority students by helping show the real, beneficial results engineering can produce. We're optimistic that it will help us build a strong, diverse program here at UC Merced.”

A.J. Hayes, a Merced College student who participated in the first service learning team, saw many other positive aspects of the program, as well. “Most students don't get any real engineering experience until their junior year,” he said. “We got the chance before that, and it will improve our employability in the future. We also had to do the writing, the verbal work to communicate with the client. You don't get that in regular engineering course work.” Following his service learning experience, Hayes says he plans to keep studying engineering on through the graduate level.

Leppert said the program also includes rigorous assessment tools to determine exactly how the program is helping students. A grant from the National Science Foundation through Purdue University helped get the program underway and begin development of those tools. Future projects for service learning students could include anything from computer and network engineering to environmental engineering work on issues such as water resources.