American Society of Civil Engineers

Expanding the College Classroom: Developing Engineering Skills through International Service-Learning Projects

by Mary McCormick, (Tufts University, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering), Christopher W. Swan, A.M.ASCE, (Tufts University, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering), Douglas Matson, (Tufts University, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering), David M. Gute, (Tufts University, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering), and John Durant, A.M.ASCE, (Tufts University, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Section: Water and Environmental Education II, pp. 1-27, (doi:

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Document type: Conference Proceeding Paper
Part of: World Environmental and Water Resources Congress 2008: Ahupua’A
Abstract: Project-based service-learning (PBSL) is a valuable pedagogical tool which confers educational benefits that extend far beyond the charter of traditional classrooms. This unique form of experiential education is based on a synergistic model in which community service is integrated with the academic learning objectives. In the context of providing engineering services to poor communities in developing countries, students are able to participate in all aspects of the engineering design process including problem formulation, consideration of alternative technologies, and design, construction, and evaluation of selected technologies. The reciprocal relationship that forms between the students and community nurtures personal growth and a deeper sense of social responsibility among students while empowering communities as they become more self-sufficient. As an advocate of this pedagogy, Tufts University has provided opportunities for students to work on water infrastructure projects in Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, and Tibet over the past four years. Although the challenges students face are unique to each project, overcoming them allows students to develop problem solving skills that they would not otherwise get in their college education. Over the last few years, concerns have escalated among many national organizations over whether today’s engineering students are being adequately prepared for future challenges; globalization, sustainability, complexity, and adaptability. To address this situation, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have all generated reports aimed at reforming the existing engineering curriculum. As a result, the NAE’s Engineer of 2020, ABET’s Engineering Criterion 3 (EC 2000), and ASCE’s Body of Knowledge (BOK) all aim at shifting the existing paradigm of engineering curriculum towards a more well-rounded education. The commonality among these three documents is improving students’ problem solving techniques. The future will inevitably bring unanticipated crises; engineers will need to identify the problems and collaboratively formulate innovative, feasible solutions. This research hypothesizes that service-learning can serve as a mechanism that will allow students to develop the necessary problem solving skills. To investigate this hypothesis, an education assessment instrument is employed to examine whether students who have participated in service-learning projects have stronger analytical, practical, and creative abilities than students who have only been exposed to the conventional "classroom" education.

ASCE Subject Headings:
Engineering education
International factors