Infusing Service-Learning in Science and Engineering and its Impact on
Pedagogy and Retention
Abhijit Nagchaudhuri, Ph.D. Ali Eydgahi, Ph.D
University of Maryland Eastern Shore
Princess Anne, MD 21853-1299
The acronym SLOPE - "Service Learning Opportunities in Physics and Engineering" has provided an umbrella for infusing "Service-Learning" seamlessly into a recently articulated collaborative engineering program between UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore) a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and SSU (Salisbury State University). Since its inception in the fall of 1998, the SLOPE program has helped identify and serve specific needs in the Eastern Shore Community by way of faculty supervised student projects. These student projects have been chosen either by the student/student group or assigned by the faculty. In all cases the faculty members involved with the program ensure compatibility with course material and desired learning objectives. Students "learn" as they "serve" which provides the foundation for a symbiotic win-win relationship between the student and the community. While it is quite early to predict the impact of these activities on the retention of students in Physics and Engineering disciplines, early indications suggest that involvement in the university, community, local high schools and within their own families via "Service-Learning" projects will significantly improve the possibility of retaining the students in the university till the award of their degrees.
With the approach of the new millennium and the emergence of the global market, significant restructuring of university education in general, and Science and Engineering education in particular  is taking place with the objective of preparing the students for the new social and economic order.
Many academic leaders agree that some of the general qualities that a university student must imbibe to integrate effectively in the social order of the new millennium are to be able to work effectively in teams; to develop a moral center; to be able to work and serve in a global context; to have the ability to integrate knowledge from many different fields; to be able to appreciate complexity; to be capable of working in a variety of interpersonal and organizational settings; to be able to act reflectively.
"Service-Learning" is a combination of academic instruction with service that addresses real community needs. It uses reflection and critical thinking to provide an emphasis on personal growth and civic responsibility. Humanities and Social Sciences curricula emphasize more on "soft skills" and "social service" and as such have naturally embraced "Service-Learning"[2-5]. Integration of "Service-Learning" within academic disciplines that emphasize on "technical" and "scientific" skills such as Engineering and Physics are rare. References [6 - 8] are among the very few reported endeavors. Engineering is a profession in which knowledge of mathematical and natural sciences acquired by study, experience and practice is prudently applied to develop ways to utilize optimally materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind and improving quality of life. The emerging trends in "outcome" based engineering education demands holistic integration of "soft" and "technical" skills. Implementation of "Service-Learning" in a novel and creative fashion may well provide an effective pedagogical tool consistent with the new paradigm that will help students comprehend the broad goals of the engineering profession.
Infusing Service-Learning in Engineering and Physics
"Service-Learning", as observed in reference  provides a win/win/win situation where the winners are the community, students and the university. As such while infusing Service-Learning into the Engineering Program, care has been taken to ensure benefits not only to the community and the students but also to promote the Universities(UMES and SSU) and their public image.
The activities of the SLOPE program provide the following services to the local community:
"Service-Learning" has been introduced in selected Engineering and Physics courses. The standard format involving preparation, action and reflection have been incorporated. Student projects that address community needs that dovetail with the 'learning objectives and outcomes' of the selected courses are only encouraged. Currently, "Service-Learning" has been infused in the following courses within the Engineering and Physics curricula a) Introduction to Engineering (ENES 100); Programming Concepts for Engineers (ENEE 114) - Freshman; Statics(ENES 102), Physics I (PHY 221) - Sophomore; Microprocessor Architecture (PHY 411) - Junior. A percentage of the grade has been assigned to "Service-Learning" activities in all of these courses.
Highlights of some of the Important Activities
Engineering students have given seminars to high school students that aided in the improvement of their knowledge in computer programming, web page development, and computer architecture. Some of the students have performed educational activities in their own families. Participation and involvement of family members have elevated the students motivation and desire to excel. Students have also solved network problems at some local high schools and discussed networking issues with high school groups.
Initiated by the faculty members Engineering and Physics students have formed partnerships with two local community based non-profit organizations: a) EXCEL - Extra Curricular Laboratories Inc., an interactive science museum with exhibits, that make science learning fun for all ages through hands on activities and mentoring; b) Holly Foundation a non-profit organization involved in rehabilitation support services that include development of adaptive equipment and assistive technology for disabled individuals.
At EXCEL the students are developing computer and web based demonstration of some of the exhibits. Some efforts have been devoted to developing new exhibits.
Members from Holly Foundation have introduced to the engineering students at UMES and SSU, by way of a invited guest lecture, the nature of medical engineering and assistive technology related design work they perform. These efforts are geared towards improving quality of life of disabled individuals. Students are participating in some of the brainstorming sessions at the foundation to design and develop innovative products related to adaptive equipment and recreational programming. Some of these ideas will be implemented in engineering design projects at the freshman and sophomore level.
A design project titled "Teaching Tools for Teachers" have been implemented at a local high school by a engineering student. The project visually reinforces some of the mathematical and scientific concepts as well as provides a platform for introducing engineering design to high school students.
Freshman engineering students are also giving presentations related to their freshman level design projects, to local high schools. This activity has not only improved the general awareness of engineering and physics education, its benefit and socio-economic impact in the local community but has also impacted recruitment efforts significantly.
"Service-Learning" emphasizes both "Service" and Learning" and can be distinguished from activities that may be labeled as "Volunteerism" or "Community Service", where the "Learning" aspect is insignificant. Students "Learn" as they "Serve" their community. Therefore, it is important to identify and encourage activities that have specific learning outcomes consistent with course and curricula within which such activities are performed.
The learning outcomes that have been identified and emphasized in the SLOPE activities are:
These outcomes are consistent with the philosophy behind the engineering curricula. Students involved in "Service-Learning" have reflected by way of interviews with the faculty as well as written reports that the activities have helped them in putting the knowledge they acquired in classrooms in perspective.
SLOPE activities have definitely gone a long way towards generating interest and excitement among engineering and physics students. Criteria 2000 of ABET calls for restructuring of engineering education and focuses emphasis on "learning outcomes" over and above "learning inputs" provided by faculty and university environment. SLOPE activities integrate well with the new paradigm of "outcome based" education. The activities provide avenues for students to show their abilities and skills in areas that may not be appropriately reflected in "tests" and "quizzes", thereby, improving the possibility of retaining students who may be poor "test-takers".
However, "retention" like "quality" is a function of many variables. Improved "retention" is a manifestation of improved "quality". Quality of incoming freshmen, university facilities and environment, faculty input, advising and counseling services are among the most important factors that affect retention. While activities such as the ones performed under SLOPE improve retention possibilities of motivated students they will have a stronger impact as they are integrated with other quality improvement efforts by the administration, staff, and faculty within the University.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the support and assistance from the Collaboration Coordination Committee and Institute of Service Learning at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) and Salisbury State University(SSU) . Dr. Asif Shakur at the Salisbury State University(SSU) participated in the SLOPE activities involving Physics majors at the University.
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