sealPurdue News

November 25, 2002

Volunteerism goes to school at universities nationwide

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Universities across the country are giving a new twist to volunteerism – weaving it into the classroom experience. It's called service-learning.

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Purdue University, which last year began a national program to link engineering students to Habitat for Humanity, is one example. Spanish students at Purdue are helping native Spanish-speaking children with their homework at a local elementary school. Purdue classes in urban design are planning for downtown Chicago's widespread use of the environmentally friendly Segway scooter, which will go on the market in April.

"Although university students traditionally have been involved in volunteerism, this new national movement toward what we call service-learning is taking this outreach to a new level," said Purdue Provost Sally Frost Mason. "We are integrating the concept into the curriculum. The students' efforts are guided by faculty who help them design projects relevant to their majors and the communities' needs. Service-learning has become an integral part of our students' education."

Currently the engineering-centered program involves 20 different departments, 300 students and 24 teams working on projects ranging from homelessness prevention to environmental protection to creating toys for children with disabilities. Called Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), programs based on the Purdue model are operating at nine other universities in the United States.

Teams of undergraduates earn academic credit for multiyear, multidisciplinary projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community service and educational organizations.

Based largely upon the program's success, EPICS' co-founder Leah Jamieson, Ransburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, this month (11/2002) was named the 2002 Indiana Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. She said she hopes to see the program double in the next three to five years and by 2010 to include 1,200 students and 100 different community-outreach teams.

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The service-learning project at an area school where 32 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers, involves bilingual students who meet with third-year Purdue students for homework help after school during the Practice and Learn Club (PAL). Nearly 40 children and as many as 20 Purdue students are active in the program.

Teresa Nunes, a doctoral student in comparative literature, pursued the service-learning opportunity after working with Hispanics at a camp Purdue sponsored last summer. She said the language skills learning club members gain by working with the Purdue tutors is invaluable and that the Purdue students also benefit.

"This is an opportunity for Purdue students to enjoy Spanish in a real-world context and use their skills outside of the classroom," Nunes said. "Their Spanish-speaking knowledge is put on the spot, but the Purdue students enjoy the interaction with the elementary students."

The program for third-year Spanish students at Purdue focuses on content and culture – rather than grammar – as the basis for language learning. Howard Grabois, program director for second- and third-year Spanish, said experience with linguistic and cultural communities outside of the classroom can offer students extraordinary opportunities for learning.

"Language fluency and proficiency are just part of what Purdue students are learning," Grabois said. "Our students also learn that they can use Spanish in a very meaningful way. What they are doing really does contribute to other people's lives, and they are seeing an immediate impact."

Monica Casanova, PAL director, said club members look forward to the arrival of their Purdue tutors each day.

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"The kids are really attached to the Purdue students and usually work with the same person," Casanova said. "They've bonded a lot."

She said teachers have been noticing a difference in the classroom.

"It's been really wonderful," Casanova said. "The teachers have been complimentary about the extra help their students have been getting and how they have been progressing."

Casanova said club members also have been learning about college, and she hopes the Purdue students have sparked an interest in higher education for the future. Other benefits transcend the classroom.

"One thing I've noticed," Casanova said, "is how our students' social skills have developed. They can talk to the Purdue students without feeling shy. It's good that they can talk to new people – especially adults – and interact with them."

The program will continue next semester.

About 30 students are involved in the urban design program in Chicago featuring the Segway. Landscape architecture professor Kim Wilson said her students are working with the Central Michigan Avenue Association – made up of business and property owners and cultural institutions along Central Michigan Avenue from Wacker to Roosevelt streets – to make this new human transportation system an appealing option for commuters.

"The goal is to sustain Central Michigan Avenue socially, economically and environmentally, and one option could be a new mode of transportation that is environmentally sound," Wilson said. "We are on the forefront of a whole new way of getting around in urban environments, which is exciting to the students. It's truly visionary."

Students are considering where the Segway scooter belongs in an already overcrowded right of way and what infrastructure – such as power sources, regulatory signage and parking options – are required to support the scooter.

Wilson said other urban design service-learning projects completed by Purdue students during the past decade in Chicago – such as the Grant Park Master Plan and Navy Pier – laid the groundwork for professionals to complete the work.

"We provide insights that become the catalyst for implementation of projects," Wilson said.

Such projects also are a catalyst for a revolution in higher education.

"We're proving that a university can strategically integrate itself into the community and foster a volunteer mindset for the leaders of tomorrow," Provost Mason said.

Writer: Marydell Forbes, (765) 496-7704,

Sources: Sally Frost Mason, (765) 494-6389;

Leah H. Jamieson, (765) 494- 3653,

Teresa Nunes, (765) 496-6298,

Monica Casanova, (765) 771-6150

Howard Grabois, (765) 496-6082,

Kim Wilson, (765) 494-1308,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Robyn Kingsley, a junior in speech and language pathology at Purdue, tutors Glen Acres fourth-grader Liliana Madriz. In the Practice and Learn Club, bilingual elementary students are teamed with Purdue students who help the children with their homework. Nearly 40 children and as many as 20 Purdue students are active in the program. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

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Matthew Dailida, state government affairs manager for Segway, helps Karen Krey, a senior majoring in landscape architecture, take the Segway for a test drive. About 30 Purdue students are involved in an urban design program in Chicago to determine ways to make the Segway a viable transportation option in an urban landscape. (Photo courtesy of Purdue Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture.)

A publication-quality photograph is available at


A student in Purdue's Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program redesigns toys to make them more manageable for children with disabilities. At Purdue, EPICS involves 20 different departments, 300 students and 24 teams. The undergraduate teams earn academic credit for working on projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community service and educational organizations. (Purdue file photo/Dick Myers-Walls)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

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