seal  Purdue News

May 25, 2004

Purdue to help 5 more universities engineer community service

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Five more universities have joined a Purdue nationwide engineering service-learning program designed to teach students to put their education to work in their communities.

Columbia University, San Jose State University, the University of California-San Diego, the University of California-Merced and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute have become the newest participants in the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program. They join 10 other universities in the program, which began at Purdue in 1995. Purdue is the national headquarters of EPICS.

In EPICS, teams of undergraduates earn academic credit for multiyear, multidisciplinary projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community service and education organizations. Teams are made up of 10-20 students ranging from freshmen to seniors studying engineering disciplines and other fields that can include communication, computer science, management and child development.

"EPICS has become a national model for engineering service-learning, integrating community service into academics," said Linda P.B. Katehi, Purdue's John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. "We are proud to see our program grow to 15 universities that represent a wide variety of institutions and prestigious engineering programs."

Representatives from each of the new institutions are meeting with faculty and administrators at the third annual EPICS national conference on May 25-27 at Purdue. The conference also includes the first meeting of the National EPICS Advisory Council and takes place in conjunction with a National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop on campus.

EPICS director Leah H. Jamieson, Purdue's Ransburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and associate dean of engineering for undergraduate education, said the program's biggest strength is its emphasis on helping students gain experience and expertise in engineering and design.

"Educators have increasingly realized the importance of developing not just good engineers, but also good citizens," she said. "While giving students the opportunity for extensive design work, we can also show them needs that exist and the impact their work can have on their communities. I hope that each of our EPICS students takes a sense of responsibility to service with them when they leave their universities."

At Purdue, teams work with community groups in four major realms: human services, access and abilities, education, and the environment. Project goals have included homeless prevention, environmental protection, and the creation of toys and adaptive devices for children with disabilities.

Other universities emphasize the types of projects that are most appropriate for their communities.

The program expansion is funded in part by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Purdue last year. Purdue will provide a portion of those funds to the new schools to supplement the cost of their programs for four years. The five new universities were chosen through a competitive process similar to that used by the NSF.

At Columbia, all first-year engineering students are required to take a service-learning course. Jack McGourty, associate dean of undergraduate studies for Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, said he hopes participation in EPICS can help the school open their program up to upperclassmen, as well as students from the liberal arts and social sciences.

"With our first-year program, we already have a very strong service-learning foundation," said McGourty, who hopes to see as many as 700 Columbia students a year eventually participate in EPICS. "Being a part of EPICS will help us grow those efforts and open them up to more students. It is important for engineers to understand more aspects to a problem than the design components, and connecting them with students in other areas will help them. This is critical for people developing technology and policy for that technology."

EPICS co-director William C. Oakes, an associate professor in Purdue's Department of Engineering Education, said universities receive many benefits from joining the EPICS program, the most important of which is an established, effective program that has already been developed.

"We help engineering programs that want to institute long-term service-learning projects without reinventing the wheel," Oakes said. "EPICS is a proven, award-winning system that can be implemented and be successful. We also provide continued administrative support, assessment tools and other components, alleviating much of the risk of beginning an untested program."

Some of that success has been shown in the program's ability to "broadening the pool" of potential engineers, Jamieson said. EPICS has larger percentages of women and minorities than engineering programs as a whole, helping to open the field to students with learning styles that might not respond well to traditional courses.

"EPICS often has a strong appeal for women and other groups that are often under-represented in engineering programs," Jamieson said. "It employs an important experiential learning component to complement traditional coursework. The long-term nature of some of the projects also allows the students to tackle problems that would not be possible during a semester-long design class."

In 1995 Jamieson and Edward J. Coyle, both professors of electrical and computer engineering, established EPICS as the nation's first engineering service-learning programs built around long-term university and community partnerships. Coyle now serves as Purdue's assistant vice president for research in computing and communication.

The program also was organized to develop socially aware and civic-minded engineering students and to promote experiential, multidisciplinary education to develop students' technical skills to meet community service agencies' needs, Jamieson said.

By 1997 EPICS had spread to Iowa State University and the University of Notre Dame.

Over the next five years, the EPICS program grew to include seven more universities: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Georgia Institute of Technology, Penn State University, Case Western Reserve University, Butler University, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and the University of Illinois.

During the 2004-05 school year, EPICS is likely to involve more than 1,500 students at the 15 participating universities.

The growth of EPICS has allowed participating universities to embark on projects with national nonprofit organizations that can be implemented on a larger scale beyond their local communities. For the past two years, Habitat for Humanity International has partnered with EPICS on several projects at the organizational level, including the development of Web-based instructional materials and tutorials aimed at volunteers for best practices in construction, criteria and guidelines for substandard housing and the means to identify substandard housing, and land-use scenarios for rural and urban studies.

Oakes said he hopes the addition of five new sites and the expanded geographic reach of the program will make more national partnerships possible.

The program's national corporate sponsors include Microsoft Corp., Hewlett Packard Co., Motorola Corp. and National Instruments. Support also is provided by the National Science Foundation and the Corporation for National Community Service.

Writer: Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073,

Sources: Linda P.B. Katehi, (765) 494-5346,

Leah H. Jamieson, (765) 494-4966,

William C. Oakes, (765) 494-3892,

Jack. McGourty, (212) 854-4814,

Heather Connell, National EPICS Coordinator, (765) 494-3750,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in speaking with contacts at the new EPICS universities can contact Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073.

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page