Service Learning: Chris Swan

Phil Gay


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Interview Participants
Most of my focus is on service and its impact on how students learn and the process of going through learning of engineering or technical topics and a lot of that work is multidisciplinary but also multi-institutional. So, we not only have engineers but also educational psychologists working on these projects. And they span from a small private institution like Tufts to being a large public like the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Service learning is really a piece of project-based service learning or just project-based learning in general. And I wanted the students to have that authentic project that would basically make it a messy project, it’s not one that I made up, but a real one that students would have to wade through the issues. As it turns out, I got involved at the same time of making it more than a real project
to actually interact with the community that was associated with that real project. And so that brought it into the service learning, sort of, arena of pedagogical tools to use. We have in the classroom, I’ve done projects with looking at cleaning up hazardous waste sites or remediating small sites in communities in Cambridge and Boston.
Outside of the classroom it's mostly Engineers Without Borders. They’re probably our biggest group of people who go out and do service to international communities. Projects that they have been involved in include a water purification and distribution project in Ecuador, a similar project in El Salvador that they worked with one community and now they're moving to a second community.
They now have a project in Uganda where they're looking at water collection, distribution, purification, but also in terms of this community's needs, it's now turning into, well, they may also need an income generation process. So, now they're going to start evaluating those issues as well. Once I did it, you're basically hooked.
You see the power behind basically providing an authentic project in service to a community, what that does to the students, how that changes the way they look at the course and the course material that you just thought that ‘If I just gave them a little bit, they will be fine with it.’ They end up expanding up on that significantly because there are other drivers, other motivators to the project and that to me was the piece that hooked me,
was that they’ll learn a whole lot more in doing these efforts than if I were just to stand up in front of them and tell them what to do. The project-based side of a service learning effort is one that is first and key with the community. So it needs to come from the community. Their needs need to be assessed and therefore understood before the project can even be developed.
And so it is essentially one of, and it's been done in many different ways, but I have done it where I've gone out to a community and said, “What are your problems? What are your issues?” and specifically went in that direction. Other times it's just asking the students to do that particular effort. Here is this community partner or potential community partner,
now move forward with finding out what their needs are and then develop a solution that can address their needs. We have at Tufts a group called Engineers Without Boarders. They tend to go into communities and do the assessment in those communities and it's at an international scale. So, they may be in Ecuador, El Salvador, and the concept there is that
they do the same thing that I would do locally, but as a student group they need to really be prepared to go into an unknown situation from many respects, but with an openness to work with this community. To develop what they consider that community's needs as well as what that community says are their needs.
Time turns out to be a major factor in how service projects are done because you can do time just from developing what the service is. And so that community may have an idea that you're going to fix their problem and you have to spend time to say ‘No, we're not going to fix it. We're here to work with you to fix it.'
The ownership of the situation is this community, they will also own the solution. We're here to help not to just do. And there's a lot of time in just doing that particular discussion. On another aspect of time is my own personal time as a faculty member to try to deliver that sort of pedagogical style to students.
There is a lot of prep time, a lot of discussion between myself and the community, but also discussion between other stakeholders that may be involved. That includes the institution, it also includes the students as to whether they're interested or not to pursue a service type project. There is significant time on the faculty for doing that.
I think the biggest time will be that of the students that go out into those communities. They have to spend time to try to understand that community. You will be able to work on every job that you have and it will be done within a four week period. There are those jobs, many of those jobs, but there are also many jobs that do take multiple years. Service is one of those things that can take eight weeks,
and it's great if it can fit within that eight week window. But there are many times where it's eight weeks and we can tackle 50% of the problem, or 20% of the problem or at least set up the problem in a better form so that the next person can move forward. So maybe this year's group will only look at assessing what the community's needs are. The next year's group will say,
‘Well here's a particular need that they needed to have assessed. Let's go deeper with our assessment and come up with recommendations on what to do.’ And then the next year's group will get an opportunity to design the system that’s necessary to address that need. So it may take multiple years. If we just walk in and say, ‘Oh we know your problem now is water. You need water supply, so all you need is a well. Okay.’
Any instrument that is installed needs to be operated and maintained. If that community doesn't have an interest to operate and maintain, doesn’t have the capability, whether its financial or just time-wise to operate and maintain, then that solution is already dead in the water so to speak. So we need to move forward with the students or whoever is interacting with that community
to truly understand what that community does do, what their culture is, how they go about living their lives on a daily basis and then develop your solution so that it fits within that particular parameter. The students get a feeling for working in teams. They get a feel for communicating their ideas to a non-technical as well as technical audience.
They get a feeling or at least a better understanding of their problems from an ethical standpoint but also from an understanding in a global and societal context what their solutions should be addressing. It also provides other skills, such as leadership capabilities. You will find that some students will not do well in classroom situation because it's too rote
and too just doing things over and over again. But you provide this opportunity for them to interact and they become more involved, more motivated, and ultimately start to lead those student efforts. My methodology is to now set up projects in the courses so that they finish a few weeks before the end of the term.
And then ask the students to provide some reflection as to, not what the project was about, but how would you do the project different? What technical aspects would you now consider? What about these other issues associated with the project, whether they be sustainability, whether they be interaction with the community, whether they be the actual fact
you had to do a presentation and stand up in front of an audience. Are those things that you found valuable? Not valuable? And then why? So they don’t see it as me asking them a question about ‘we did service learning in this course, give me a reflection on your experience in doing service learning.’ It seems like, ‘Oh he’s just asking me about the experience of me doing this project.’
But by me asking the question in a way that leads to a reflection on the work they just did provides that reflection. If you make it an assignment, it really comes through. Makes the process much easier for them. I would say that there’s two ways in which I can look at this and see it. One is students feel like they’ve done a great service and therefore
that was what they received out of doing this effort, was the service. They got a chance to do something that they thought someone needed and therefore they got to address someone’s need. There are others though that can actually see the value of the service component and their educational benefit. How in doing that service they learned and basically deepened their learning
on particular engineering aspects, whether it’s technical or non-technical. They have definitely seen how engineering is different and that it has a lot more pull to their own inner self to the point to where they now want to bring it out and say ‘This is really what engineering is about. It’s not about how the building is built as much as why the building is built.’
It’s in the project, I say I will grade you on your final report and on your presentation. I will also grade you on how you do the project and how you precede through the project. And so, therefore, that has already set the point, if you will, that I’m going to be evaluating not only what you tell me you did, but what your other group members say you did and how you went about working on it.
Sometimes it leads to ‘oh you know we all worked as a team. There’s no big difference’ other times it works into ‘oh we got a difference in team members and there’s one team member did not pull their weight’ but at the worse it’s making the students think about those soft skills, such as teamwork. And also in terms of the context of the project,
it could be how did this project fit more general terms—societal, global context? Your students may not succeed. You may not succeed in giving the project and defining the project and your students may not succeed in getting to the conclusions or to the end that they are looking for. It is part of the issue of a real project.
Authentic projects are not going to go right down that this week is going to be this part and then the next week is going to be this part. No, they will change. But to me, that is really what engineering is about. We run into that every day in practice. We think we’re going to design the world’s largest skyscraper and then we find out no you can’t really design it in that location.
You may have to move locations, you may not be able to do it at all. Each one of those brings a different and unique aspect to a project, okay. Service learning does the same thing. It brings a unique and different aspect to a project, one that needs to be attached from multiple ways. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that I can design it on a piece of paper and it works.
It may require me to actually make a prototype and actually to implement my project and see what needs to be done in place, okay. So, it’s a different way of doing it. It’s not your lecture and this is what I told you to do and then you do it and everything works out.
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