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$1 Million NSF Grant Will Help Transform Engineering Education

Service Learning Projects Bring Learning to Life

A village in Peru has running water because students Lara Thompson, center, and Stacy Bletsis, right, designed a sand filtration and water distribution system.

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The Francis College of Engineering has won a grant for $1 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of only six awarded nationwide out of 57 applicants to the NSF's program for Engineering Education.
The three-year funding will help the College implement its project SLICE: Service Learning Integrated throughout a College of Engineering. The project's ambitious goal is to revitalize an entire college of engineering through the energizing application of service learning.

Service learning integrates academic subject matter with service to the community in credit-bearing courses. Research shows that service learning increases critical thinking and tolerance for diversity. It also leads to better knowledge of the subject, higher student retention and more effective recruitment of women and minorities to engineering.

"We will integrate projects into a broad array of courses so that students will be exposed to service learning in every semester in the core curriculum in each of the five engineering departments," says Prof. John Duffy, lead author of the proposal and one of its principal investigators. "Under the initial planning grant, 36 faculty members already are working on integrating service learning in 40 courses. And, more than 500 engineering students participated in such projects in required courses."
"UMass Lowell is the only engineering program with NSF funding that is working on implementation through the entire college, not just in a department or a special program," says Engineering Dean John Ting. "In that respect, we are recognized as leading the nation."

Ting is determined to broaden the appeal and public understanding of what engineering is about, to clarify the benefits to society.

"Engineering is a people-helping profession," he says. "It's a creative profession and it makes a real difference." Engineering graduates are tackling major issues around the world - access to clean water and affordable energy, waste and pollution control, innovations in health care. One engineer can design a medical device that saves thousands of lives, rather than the few he or she could save as a doctor.

Attracting more students to engineering education also has implications for global competitiveness.

"National attention is focused on the country's diminishing strength in engineering and science," says Ting. "And Massachusetts, with its highly educated, relatively affluent population, has one of the lowest percentages of high school graduates entering science and engineering. Industry, government and communities in this state are all concerned and supporting our efforts."

Engineering at Lowell has an unusually strong history of service learning to build on. The Assistive Technology program engages senior engineering students in creating and modifying products for the disabled; the Assistive Tech Design Fair does the same with high school students, and DesignCamp has added a High Tech program that includes an assistive technology project. UMass Lowell's energy engineering program leads the Village Empowerment Project, which has installed 60 student-designed solar, lighting and water supply systems in 24 villages in Peru. Faculty-student groups have visited the area 14 times and worked closely with local residents.

No matter how good an idea it is, a major program change does not just spring into being. The participants are well aware of the challenges. Finding projects that both match student capabilities and provide valuable service to community partners is not easy. Students are responsible for the "deliverables" - a design that works, an accurate and thorough report or a working model. Projects, since they are not just textbook examples, cannot simply be repeated.

Also, administrative barriers must be breached. Departments have to agree on credit and content requirements if a college-wide capstone design course is established. If students want to start working on a long-term project in their sophomore year, a series of one-credit courses must be established. Faculty from English and other departments are interested: How can service learning be incorporated into writing and ethics courses for engineering students? 

Finding the academic connections to make it all work will be the job of a college service coordinator, to be hired this semester. Requests for help from the public come to Dan Toomey, service learning coordinator for the University. The steering team for the project includes Dean John Ting; Prof. John Duffy and Asst. Prof. Larissa Gorbatikh of mechanical engineering; Profs. Carol Barry and David Kazmer of plastics engineering; Alan Rux, Prof. Donn Clark, Asst. Profs. Alkim Akyurtlu and Mufeed Mah'd of electrical and computer engineering; Prof. Pradeep Kurup, Asst. Profs. Xiaoqi Zhang and Oguz Gunes of civil and environmental engineering; and Prof. Krishna Vedula of chemical engineering.

High school students John Ho, center, and Brian Orellana, right, designed a toy switch for Devon (with his teacher Sarah) at the Kennedy School.
Engineering senior Philip Sliney, left, worked on the motorized stander, operated by Lawrence High School student John McLaughlin.