This complete evidence-based practice paper presents how Service-Learning (S-L) helped first-year engineering students attending an urban institution to grow their concept of community. When S-L is incorporated into a first-year engineering design course, students expand their learning as they work and teach in the community. In addition, students get a chance to see and experience the greater community to which they belong. Through S-L, engineering students also learn about social issues and societal norms outside of the immediate boundaries of their university. This work aims to assess the level of our students’ presumptions of the surrounding communities, both before and after a S-L opportunity and presents evidence of students’ growth towards a more open mindset.
First-year engineering students enrolled in a S-L section of an engineering design course at Northeastern University are required to complete mandatory service with community partners outside of class hours as part of their course assessment. Two instructors of the design course, Cornerstone of Engineering, added an additional element of S-L to their course to allow over 120 students this additional growth opportunity. Over 15 S-L sites were included in the community partnerships with two main foci: middle school robotics leagues and a community makerspace.
Two surveys (Pre and Post course) helped to identify initial impressions and changes in students’ (1) understanding of community partner’s geographic location, (2) impressions of location, (3) propensity to frequent a business in that location, and (4) knowledge of actual persons residing in the community. Students were asked to write reflections after S-L site visits which acted as assessments of their growth in understanding of course concepts. The reflections were also useful to see the students’ perception of professional growth and their perception of the community and their impact on it.
Initial surveys indicated that news and word of mouth stories played a large role in students’ impressions of the surrounding neighborhoods. As expected, the majority of students had not frequented a business or even ventured into the neighborhood, despite its close proximity to campus. Students frequently answered questions with an emotional distance between themselves and statements about the neighborhood. During the semester, reflection entries generally showed the majority of students reporting seeing the community differently, with significantly less negative commentary. After the course, they know people in the surrounding urban community and are more likely to frequent businesses there. After S-L the students start to lose the concept that the surrounding urban community is distinct from the university community. We conclude that the S-L opportunity forces our students out of their comfort zone, helping them to grow as engineers who are better prepared for future challenges.
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