Does Service Learning Produce Better Engineers, Attract Women to the Field?

June 4, 2009

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. - The key to improving engineering programs while also boosting the number of women interested in the male-dominated field may be curricula that emphasize hands-on, service-based learning as well as traditional academic and technical knowledge.

With a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Chris Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts School of Engineering and a team of researchers are taking a hard look at this theory. The goal of their three-year study is to determine the extent to which service-learning might help engineering programs attract and retain students, particularly women. 

The findings could help educators nationwide adapt or retool their teaching methods. The team includes co-principal investigators Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering and Linda Jarvin, research associate in the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. The team also includes Gay Lemons, a post-doctoral associate in engineering at Tufts; Adam Carberry, a doctoral student in education at Tufts, and collaborator William Oakes from the Engineering Education Department at Purdue University.
 
The research will address two prevailing, but unproven, beliefs about service-learning in the engineering classroom. It will investigate whether students enrolled in programs equipped with a service learning component as well as rigorous technical focus are more motivated about the profession and confident in their skills.
 
Appeal to Women Engineers
 
Second, the researchers will use the data to examine service-learning's popularity with women students. Anecdotally, this trend is evidenced by the membership rolls of service-oriented groups like the student-run Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Forty percent of the members are women even though the profession as a whole is only 5 percent female.
 
Swan notes that about 40 percent of Tufts' female engineering majors participate in school-supported service learning programs such as the Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program Network (STOMP), which pairs undergraduate and graduate level students with teachers in public K-12 schools. The program is one of three administered by the School of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.
  
"Service projects require technical training but the skills are being applied to non-abstract real life problems. It could very well be that women are more motivated to choose engineering as a major and then stay in the field after they graduate if they feel that their work is attached to social good," says Swan.
 
Tufts engineering undergraduates enrolled in service learning programs, including the STOMP Network and EWB, will complete on-line surveys and a hands-on assessment. Students from Purdue University's Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program as well as the Purdue EWB chapter will also complete the same instruments.
 
According to Carberry, the overall goal is to assess the degree to which the service learning model "promotes competency. If self-efficacy is higher then a student is more likely to do well and stay enrolled in the program."
 
In one section of the survey, students will be asked to assess their self-efficacy - their confidence, motivation and expectations of achieving success when faced with a difficult engineering problem. In the second part, students will indicate their abstract beliefs about engineering as a discipline by answering questions such as: Is one's competency as an engineer based on natural ability or can it be learned? To what degree should engineering knowledge be applicable in real life scenarios?
 
Finally, the students will be given a hands-on task -- designing a jar opener for a one-armed person -- and then monitored to see how closely they follow a structured design process and adhere to standard engineering principles. Swan states, "In the aggregate, these various research components will provide insights as to the key educational factors attractive to engineering students. We believe that the 'service' part of the service learning pedagogy makes engineering such an attractive choice for study or a career to those who traditionally have not viewed engineering as a possibility, much less a choice. Having these new 'voices in the conversation' will diversify the field and is crucial for the future success of engineering."  The work is expected to be completed by Fall 2011.
  
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Tufts University School of Engineering is uniquely positioned to educate the technological leaders of tomorrow. Located on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, the School of Engineering offers a rigorous engineering education in an environment characterized by the best blending of a liberal arts college atmosphere with the intellectual and technological resources of a world-class research university. Close collaboration with the School of Arts and Sciences and the university's extraordinary collection of excellent professional schools create a wealth of educational and research opportunities. The School of Engineering's primary goal is to educate engineers committed to the innovative and ethical application of technology in the solution of societal problems. It also seeks to be a leader among peer institutions in targeted areas of interdisciplinary research and education that impact the well-being and sustainability of society, including bioengineering, sustainability and innovation in engineering education.
  
About Tufts University
Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.