MERCED, CA — Recognizing that graduates of the University of California, Merced, will be an essential resource for regional companies that need prepared workers, the Max and Verda Foster family of Foster Farms fame has pledged $1.2 million to fund hands-on educational experiences in the School of Engineering at UC Merced.
The Fosters' gift funds the Foster Family Center for Engineering Service Learning — A National EPICS Site. At the center, students will develop engineering and management skills as they work in teams to provide much-needed services to non-profit organizations in the area. Rigorous assessment tools will measure the impact of the program as it develops, ensuring that the resources devoted to the center make the greatest possible contribution to the education of UC Merced students. Funds representing a portion of the total pledge amount have already been placed in the hands of university administrators to get the program started.
“Funding Service Learning will allow us to impact a variety of areas as we seek to give back to the region that has given so much to us,” said Sue Foster, representing the family. “The program is a triple-win effort that creates opportunities for students, prepared workers for companies, and help for non-profit organizations.”
Dean of Engineering Jeff Wright added, “Service Learning will be a cornerstone of engineering education at UC Merced. The Fosters deserve immense credit for their vision and thanks for their generosity in funding the program.”
Practical experience as part of a university education is a newly important issue in engineering education because of new accreditation standards from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), driven by demand from industry, that require a hands-on component for students seeking degrees in engineering. The Engineering Service Learning Program will help UC Merced meet those standards and give students an advantage in the job market.
A group of students completed the first Engineering Service Learning project at UC Merced in the summer of 2004. Funded by a seed-money grant from the National Science Foundation, through the Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) program at Purdue University, they created a machine inspired by the drawings of Rube Goldberg to demonstrate the laws of physics for the Castle Science and Technology Center in Atwater.
Professor Valerie Leppert advised the project and will continue to direct Engineering Service Learning as the program grows with the help of the Fosters' gift. The gift will allow her to explore options for office and lab space to house the program and hire staff members to run it. The program will grow quickly, and will encourage participation from UC Merced students in all academic Schools.
“Most university students don't get any real engineering experience until their junior year,” said A.J. Hayes, a Merced College student who participated in the first service learning team. “We got the chance before that, and it will improve our employability in the future. We also gained valuable writing and verbal communications experience, particularly communication with the client. You don't routinely have these opportunities in regular engineering course work.” Hayes plans to keep studying engineering through the graduate level, beginning with a transfer to UC Merced when it opens to its first undergraduates this fall. The Fosters' gift will enrich his experience along with the experiences of his fellow students.