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Service-Learning Hits Stride

By Lee Ann Cox Article published September 19, 2005

Engineering Service-Learning
Nancy Hayden, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, leads a service-learning class on a tour of a local manufacturing plant. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Emerald-green nickel solution bubbles furiously in one of a long line of tanks, the hum of machinery saturates the humid air and a small group of students, safety goggles in place, begin absorbing the complexities of the challenge before them.

They’re at the Edlund Company, a manufacturer of industrial food service equipment with a record of maintaining high environmental safety standards. This factory is their classroom, their assignment is to design economically sustainable means of reducing the volume of hazardous waste the company needs to treat and transport.

The course, “Hazardous Waste Management Engineering,” is one of 29 classes across 20 disciplines that, for the first time this semester, have a formal service-learning designation. A mix of graduate students and seniors from multiple disciplines will spend the semester working on a detailed investigation and analysis of the problem, and then issue recommendations that, by all accounts, the company will take very seriously.

“This is positive in all aspects,” says Tom O’Rourke, Edlund's environmental health and safety administrator. “It’s good for students to see things they’re not used to seeing in the classroom. I’m going to be meeting challenging people who are going to challenge me to do better.”

Mutual benefits
That’s what service-learning is about, building equal, reciprocal relationships between the community and the campus, fulfilling needs for both, explains Carrie Williams, associate director of UVM’s Office of Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning, or CUPS.

For community partners — who currently range from the King Street Youth Center to Shelburne Farms — service-learning is an opportunity to tap into valuable research, expertise and support and build a meaningful, potentially long-term collaboration with the university.

“A lot of our partners wouldn’t be able to take on larger initiatives or do long-term planning and policy research,” says Williams, “because their staffs are too busy running programs on a daily basis.”

For students the advantage of service-learning goes far beyond volunteerism. It transforms the theoretical into the tangible and puts their studies into context. Examining what all that means is part of the deal. The requirements for service courses include reflection and evaluation exercises such as journal keeping and group discussion.

“One of the biggest things we try to do is dispel the notion that reflection is cheesy or soft,” Williams says. “It’s about using critical thinking to help students identify what they’ve learned through this experience and that can be academic, civic, professional or personal. When you get outside the classroom you can’t ignore learning about your personal and civic identity and what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

But Williams is emphatic about UVM’s commitment to focusing on the real needs of the community, not just the existential needs of students. To that end, CUPS just launched the community partner research program, working with the United Way to assess priorities and examine what factors make for good partnerships. They also have a new AmeriCorps*VISTA community liaison who aims to increase both the quantity and quality of partnerships.

The goal eventually is to increase the number of service-learning courses so that any student in any academic department can find a course of interest. Because whether you’re a sociologist or an engineer, the intellectual and emotional impact of real-life work that serves a social goal can be profound.

“They take it a gazillion times more seriously when they know what they’re doing matters,” says Nancy Hayden, the assistant civil engineering professor who teaches that waste management class.

“It’s not just doing a good job for the company — this isn’t a consulting job. If we can prevent pollution, and show that it’s economically viable so a company wants to do it, then students take it more seriously because they know their projects will get implemented.

“Engineers have always been pretty good at trying to give back to the community, doing pro bono work,” Hayden continues, “but this is different. This is a bigger idea… This is looking at how engineers can make a difference in social issues and that’s pretty new.”


The CUPS office offers many services for faculty pursuing service-learning projects. They include events like the Sept. 26-27 visit of consultant Patti Clayton, who will offer three workshops open to students, faculty and staff (participants should register by Sept. 23). The office also puts on intensive five-day training sessions for faculty that help effectively integrate service into an existing course. Forty-seven faculty have completed the training to date. Finally, CUPS can help place service-learning teaching assistants with faculty, sometimes with financial support.

Information, registration: Office of Community-University Partnerships or 656-0095