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New Service Learning Course Builds Bridges Between UMass and Town of Amherst

Cheryl Brooks

Cheryl Brooks

This semester the College of Engineering’s Assistant Dean for Experiential Learning, Cheryl Brooks, is teaching a new, four-credit course in community engagement that is not only enabling engineering students to apply their education in very practical ways, but is teaching them to make meaningful social contributions to the Town of Amherst, local community agencies, and the people served by these institutions. In the process, Brooks’ course in “Learning Through Community Engagement” is building bridges between the Town of Amherst and the UMass campus, which is too often smeared by bad publicity.

“The students recognize that UMass often gets a bad rap with the town of Amherst because of drinking and partying,” Brooks explains about the 20 students, from all four engineering departments, who are taking her course. “But these engineering students pointed out that they would like the town to look at UMass students as a benefit, and not just a liability. That’s one big reason why they want to help the town. Because the town might not see students in the best light.”

“Learning Through Community Engagement” gives engineering students the opportunity to work on projects that have a clear benefit to society. It also provides them with the opportunity to assume a more active role in the learning process. Through hands-on community based projects, students actively apply engineering principles to solving real-world problems and gain a broader perspective of the social issues that contribute to the needs in their community.

The idea was originally inspired by College of Engineering Dean Tim Anderson’s ultimate goal of 100 percent participation in experiential learning for all college undergraduates.

“One issue was to think about what we can do to include those students who haven’t gained engineering-related experience during their first three years in the college,” explains Brooks. “One of the barriers is that the engineering curriculum is so packed. If you don’t get an internship or coop during the summers or winter breaks, then what?”

The answer occurred to Brooks one afternoon while she was having lunch with a colleague in the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) as they brainstormed about community service.

As Brooks says, “And it dawned on me that, wow, it would be a great opportunity for some of our students to have a class in service learning that collaborated with the Town of Amherst and some of the community agencies. It seemed like such an obvious idea.”

Brooks learned that CCESL has faculty fellowships to fund planning for service learning coursework, and she applied and received one of those. The result is her one-semester, four-credit, social and behavioral general education course aimed at providing meaningful engineering-related experiences that positively impact the community.

The course requires attendance at one class per week, plus one day a week working on an actual community project, with students spending approximately 20 hours throughout the semester working directly with community members on their projects. 

One project is being run by college alumnus Michael Duffey (Ph.D. ’91), recently retired from George Washington University as a professor in mechanical engineering. He has been volunteering at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst, which partially burned down over the summer. Duffey supervised three projects for students: redesigning the patient alarm system; designing and building storage areas for nursing supplies; and redesigning lighting in patient bedrooms.

Several civil engineering students in the course are working with the Town of Amherst Director of Public Works, Guilford Mooring, P.E., to design a new sidewalk from Applewood Retirement Community to Atkins Farm, so the residents don’t have to walk along the busy road. This sidewalk would also serve various constituents as Hampshire College and the Eric Carle Museum.

Another project is with the Town of Amherst water department, sampling the water in all the public buildings, such as libraries, police station, fire stations, and other town buildings, to test for lead and other contaminants.

A fourth project is a level-one energy audit for Amherst town buildings, starting with the Department of Public Works building.  The students are working with Brad Newell and College of Engineering alumnus Paul Banks (B.S. ’81) from B2Q Technologies of Andover, Massachusetts, to determine the inefficiencies of the current systems and recommend potential savings from more energy efficient systems.

Within the class periods, students are exposed to relevant literature, guest speakers, and social media that address issues of housing, poverty, zoning laws, transportation routes, and many other issues appropriate for socially engaged engineers. For example, they discuss how social inequalities affect access to housing and food options. Brooks’ classes also cover the social issues surrounding various problems such as safe drinking water, climate change, access to school services, etc. 

“In one of the first classes, we talked about civic engagement and what that means,” recalls Brooks. Another class instructed students in project management, teamwork, and how they can go about approaching real-life engineering problems and answering pertinent questions that arise.

“For instance, who decides how and where a new sidewalk gets put in?” says Brooks. “Who gets invited to the discussion? How are these decisions made, and who gets to contribute? What are the regulatory components, how did they get started, how do they get amended, how do engineers adhere to them? These are some of the things we’ve been talking about in class.”

Anticipated outcomes of the class include an understanding of social issues in the community and how engineers can help address some of the most pressing problems in society. Students will also gain hands-on engineering-related experience and will provide a tangible benefit to the community. In addition, students will learn communication and teamwork skills through working directly with community members. (November 2016)